Fifteen years ago, a new Republican president entered the White House heady with talk about revolutionizing K-12 education in America.
At the time, George W. Bush famously made school choice a key plank of his compassionate conservative platform. Many reformers and parents believed they would finally have access to the holy grail of education choice: The ability to send their children to any school regardless of income.
These hopes plummeted as quickly as they rose.
By Jan. 2, 2001 — 18 days before Bush was sworn in — The Washington Post reported, “Bush likely to drop vouchers.” Indeed, the Bush administration quickly jettisoned any substantial school choice programs in favor of the No Child Left Behind Act with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy.
For the past 15 years, Republicans in Washington D.C. have failed to pass meaningful education reform, while their counterparts at the state level have succeeded. Governors like Florida’s Jeb Bush and Indiana’s Mike Pence have drastically improved education choice in their respective states.
But this record may be about to change.
During the election campaign, Donald Trump promised to pursue a “school choice” agenda to deliver better education to American children. By naming longtime education reform advocate Betsy DeVos as his choice for secretary of Education, President-elect Trump has shown he is serious about fulfilling his promises.
Here are some key steps Mrs. DeVos can take to make school choice a reality at the federal level without engaging in a thorny battle over vouchers:
• The major federal education funding programs already have statutory requirements that make low-income and learning-disabled children eligible to receive federally funded services even if they attend a non-public school. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) permit local school districts to deliver these services in non-public schools, but don’t require them to do so — and thus, too many kids aren’t served. As education secretary, Mrs. DeVos should issue regulations requiring local districts to deliver these services in non-public schools.
• Along similar lines, Mrs. DeVos should beef up and elevate the Department of Education’s Office of Non-Public Education, empowering it to review the policies and implementation of other offices within the department. While this may sound like inside-the-bureaucracy minutiae, it could make a big difference in the real world of how policies will work.
Mrs. DeVos should also work with congressional allies to overhaul federal education policy and empower parents. There is widespread agreement within the education community that special education for the learning-disabled is an underfunded and wasteful system, forcing federal funds to trickle down through state and local bureaucracies before serving those who need help the most.
Last year, there was broad bipartisan support in Congress for creating “ABLE Savings Accounts,” which established tax-favored savings accounts for families with a disabled member needing special care. Mrs. DeVos should build on this bipartisan work and press legislation to transform special education in the U.S. by making IDEA funding “portable” so that federal dollars follow the students to the schools that best serve their needs.
• To increase parent choice and educational opportunity, Mrs. DeVos should work with Congress to follow the lead of the dozen states that offer various forms of tax credits for payments or investments in non-public education. In Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Minnesota and other states, these programs have delivered hundreds of millions of private dollars to K-12 education, benefitting both non-public and public education. They have also garnered strong bipartisan support from governors ranging from former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, to Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama each attempted to dramatically improve American K-12 education during their presidencies. While they deserve credit for their intentions, the results have been lackluster. Mr. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law became bogged down in controversial testing mandates and President Obama’s multi-million-dollar Race to the Top incentive program never sparked real innovation as a result of entrenched education bureaucracies.
Sixteen years later, American K-12 education is long overdue for an overhaul. No one is more invested in a child’s education than his or her parents. The road to real reform lies with policies that give parents more resources for — and power over — their educational choices. And it is possible that no one is more likely to succeed at bringing about real reforms than Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump.
• Nathan Diament is executive director for public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
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