With the House passing a bill to limit the federal role in K-to-12 schooling and a unanimous Senate committee doing the same, it might look as if there is finally some progress in fixing the broken over-centralized national educational system.
The bill is the brainchild of education committee chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, who claims it would “ban the federal government from mandating any sort of education standards, Common Core or otherwise.” If it becomes law, “it would lessen federal control in the education system and help calm heated debates about Common Core standards. Rather than the Feds making the decisions, the bill would allow states to create their own accountability systems and determine how much standardized tests should account for student and faculty evaluations.”
Alexander predicts he has the votes to pass the whole Senate based upon the overwhelming support of his committee, ranging from Elizabeth Warren to Rand Paul. Sen. Patty Murray is the co-sponsor. Of course, that means things have been compromised quite a bit, but it is headway made against federal control. The fact that the progressive Center for American Progress fears that the bill will weaken national standards and allow states to change one-size-fits-all “maintenance of effort” funding standards suggests things are going in the right direction.
Of course, in federal education policy, nothing is that simple. Obama officials are resisting and so are some conservative representatives who want to allow states to opt-out of federal education controls entirely without any financial penalty. House Education Committee Chairman John Kline says he supports the concept of the conservative amendment and allowed a vote on it, but it failed. The bill passed the House without a single Democrat—who objected to the loss of federal control—and was opposed by two dozen Republicans, who said the bill did not go far enough in limiting control. Kline hopes a conference with the Senate might eliminate the test mandates and work out the other details.
The House bill would make some major changes. While, like the Senate version, it would still require states to hold annual standardized tests in reading and math from third to eighth grades and once again in high school, and publish data on results, it would allow students to opt out of tests without loss of federal funds. It would largely allow states to spend federal money as they pleased and would not require them to meet federal benchmarks for success. States would still be required to intervene in local schools that need improvement, but the type and number of interventions would be up to the states. A new provision called “portability” would allow federal funds to “follow the child” if he or she transferred to a school not covered by current law.
Alexander’s response, in a The Hill newspaper interview, to conservatives who think the bill does not go far enough was, “If you leave No Child Left Behind like it is, you are leaving in place a national school board and a Common Core mandate. From a Republicans or conservative point of view, I would think you would want to move away from that.”
It will be a tough call for conservatives who have been at the forefront of the twin activities that have led to Congressional willingness to consider reform: the movements to limit the national education standards regime called Common Core, and the one in the states promoting charter schools, often at the urging of governors, are now overwhelmingly Republican. While touted as originating in the states, Common Core sputtered until President Obama used his Race To The Top legislation to promise to moderate some No Child Left Behind Act burdens and to acquire new financial grants if states adopted Common Core standards. In 2010, Obama ordered that all federal education grants be conditioned on adopting the standards. Even with this pressure, bipartisan majorities in Congress and in many states have now soured on Common Core.
The other grassroots reform of offering charter alternatives to traditional public schooling has become almost mainstream. Today, a majority of students in the overwhelmingly Democratic District of Columbia have escaped failing public schools to enroll in charters. Even Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has supported raising the limit on the number of charter schools, which has been the main teacher association strategy to stifle the idea. Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio, the Democratic majority in the New York lower legislative body, and the teachers unions are the last holdouts against reform even in the Empire state. Even President Obama concedes American education is failing. There is a growing understanding that bureaucratization, union self-interest, and method-over-substance do not work.
One of the pioneers of entrepreneurial education and advocates for lifting governmental restrictions on innovation argues the movement must now go further. Bob Luddy, chairman and founder of a $300 million commercial kitchen ventilation company, CaptiveAire, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, created one of the state’s early charter schools, Franklin Academy, in 1998. He started with a handful of students in a single location. Franklin now has 1,650 students at five locations in two K-2 schools, two 3-8 schools, and a $9 million high school. With a 1,500 student waiting list, Franklin has perhaps the largest demand for admission in the country. After making his own charter school a success, Luddy was instrumental in increasing North Carolina’s numerical limit on charters to make similar opportunities available for other parents and their children.
Although less regulated than traditional public schooling, charters are subject to pressure from well-funded education lobbyists interested in limiting charter competition to their union-dominated public school clients. Unfortunately, they have been more successful than not. Frustrated by such charter restrictions, Luddy concluded that true reform must free itself from state bureaucratization. With the knowledge garnered by previously founding a religious private high school called St. Thomas More Academy with 180 students, he launched a classical curriculum private school he called Thales Academy, named for the Greek philosopher. Today Thales Academy boasts 1,700 students and 150 faculty in three K-5 locations and two 6-12 locations in the greater Raleigh area, with an average growth rate of 15 percent per year.
Luddy’s educational philosophy parallels that of his business: keep overhead low and deliver quality to customers. Administrators are few and sports are de-emphasized. As Luddy told the American Spectator, “A lot of people say you shouldn’t talk of education as a business, but the reality is, it is a business.” The weakest elements he sees in current education are rules that limit innovation, weak curricula, and high costs. Private education is the answer to the first, rigorous classical education to the second, and business acumen to the third. Luddy provided all three.
Thales’ test scores are higher than even charter schools. Where the average building cost for a new public school nears $100 million, Thales delivered it for $10 million. Student tuition is $5,300 per year for kindergarten through fifth grade and $6,000 for sixth through 12th grades at Thales, compared to $11,000 for the average local private school and $9,000 (in per pupil cost) for public schooling. Now Luddy wants to take his idea national. “My idea was that parents should have hundreds of choices, whereas currently if they go to the public school system, they have one maybe two. They have precious few choices. Once you open up competition, the choices will be abundant.”
It is a long road from Alexander’s first steps away from centralized administration, content-less curriculum and vanilla character training, and expensive and politicized teacher-oriented rather than student-focused education today to Luddy’s ideal of thousands of private schools offering choice by actually educating America’s youth. But, at last, there is some sense of hope.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term.