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Education and the Presidential Race

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THE REPUBLICANS, as the old saying goes, never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Gov. George W. Bush demonstrated that truism when he clinched the presidential nomination and told the nation that education would be at the center of his campaign. Over and over he has said that a Bush presidency would “reform education” and make sure every child is educated.

Vice President Al Gore will be saying the same thing.

This is what passes as political debate in America these days. Rather than a real debate on who should control education — government or parents — we’ll have a pseudo-debate over whether federal policy should consist of carrots or sticks. Yawn.

The touted forward-looking GOP leader might have struck a real blow for educational excellence and educational freedom, but he chose to play it safe instead. Mr. Bush says, “The federal government must be humble enough to stay out of the day-to-day operation of local schools, wise enough to give states and school districts more authority and freedom, and strong enough to require proven performance in return.” The last element of that program is the key. As Mr. Bush puts it, “In return for this flexibility, each state must adopt a system of real accountability and high standards.”

Who will determine whether the system is “real”? The Bush Education Department, of course. As long as the federal government is handing out money and “requiring proven performance in return,” it maintains control over education, despite what Mr. Bush says.

Before getting to specifics, some general observations are in order. The very tenor of Mr. Bush’s pronouncements on education convey one overall message to the American people: not only is education a government concern, it is a federal concern. He talks about freedom and flexibility, but as long as he’s saying anything more than that the federal government should have no role, his message is that the federal government should have a central role.

So instead of taking the opportunity to tell the American people that the federal government has no constitutional or moral authority to be involved in education, he’s crisscrossing the country spelling out an education philosophy. His speeches and website are riddled with declarations about what schools must be and should do. You’d think he was running for the local school board. Mr. Bush is a public-school man, and hence on the wrong side of one of the critical issues of our time.

Mr. Bush says that as president he would withdraw federal money from schools that receive aid for “disadvantaged” children if those schools persist in exhibiting low test scores. He will use federal money to maneuver states into doing the testing he favors. The withdrawn money would be added to new federal money that states could use to send children to other public schools, charter schools, or private schools. Failing schools would have three years to improve before losing the money.

This program goes in exactly the wrong direction. The problem with education is the dead hand of government and the absence of dynamic entrepreneurship, which requires a free market and full parental freedom and responsibility. The last thing needed is more government manipulation. But that’s what the Bush plan calls for.

It may appear that the plan shifts some control to the private sector, but that’s an illusion. Government is in control every step of the way.

Increasing federal intervention

First, the government schools subject to loss of money would get three years to improve. The states would set the standards and write the tests, leaving plenty of opportunity to cook the results. Second, the money withdrawn would be given to state governments, which will control how it is used. If they let parents use the money for private schools, you can bet that controls will be imposed on those schools in the name of “accountability.” In other words, like a voucher plan, the Bush plan will permit government to sink its claws into independent schools. That would be a setback for education excellence and educational freedom.

Once upon a time, the Republicans said they wanted to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Apparently the prospect of putting “our people” in control of the department chases away abolitionist thoughts. Never mind that the Constitution gives the federal government no authority whatever to meddle in education.

This is apparently news to Mr. Bush. Witness: “The federal role in education is to foster excellence and challenge failure with charters and choice. The federal role in education is not to serve the system. It is to serve the children.” He has lately promised to give states federal tax money for “character education.” By not questioning the principle of a federal role in education, Governor Bush embraces that role and seeks to leave his mark on it. His policy would differ only in minor ways from his Democratic opponent’s.

Al Gore relishes federal meddling in education. As the candidate beholden to the teachers’ unions, Mr. Gore’s program has a different flavor from Bush’s. Of course, he eschews any talk of sending tax money to private schools, but he promises to spend $115 billion more on government schools than is now being spent. And of course, there’s the expected laundry list of promises: smaller classes, smaller schools, higher pay and better training for teachers, higher expectations from everyone. He even wants to raise to 18 the age at which students are free to leave school.

Gore and Bush both favor expansion of charter schools, a pseudo-innovation designed to make parents think government can be imaginative in education policy. Charter schools are government-funded schools that operate under a government-approved contract free of some bureaucratic burdens. They have nothing to do with the free market for reasons that should be obvious. First, the source of their money is taxation. Second, a government authority must approve the contract and holds the school to it. Third, the charter can be revoked.

Charter schools are already having a pernicious effect. Entrepreneurs who might have set up real market-based schools are instead enlisting in the state-education-industrial complex. Some charter-school operators have tried to lure homeschoolers back into the government’s schools by dangling the promise of tax-financing.

The education debate between Governor Bush and Vice President Gore will be over carrots and sticks. While the Republican will argue that federal money should be taken from schools that don’t perform, the Democrats will respond that those are the precisely the ones that need extra assistance.

Thus, the argument will be over how best to use the taxpayers’ money rather than whether the taxpayers’ money is best left in the taxpayers’ own hands.

The last 20 years have seen enough gimmicky approaches to the failed government education system. That system won’t be fixed by “innovative” ways to spend people’s money, even if some of that money is sent to nongovernment schools. Money is always accompanied by strings. We surely don’t need today’s independent schools tangled in government strings.

What we do need is freedom and entrepreneurship. Let parents (and nonparents) keep their money. Let entrepreneurs offer schooling and other educational services. And let free choice and the free market work. We who have lived through the computer revolution, largely a product of the free market, should easily grasp that freedom is the key to success in education too.

Politicians who look for endless variations on the same old tired theme of government control should be dismissed as the political dinosaurs they are.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.