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The GOP and Education

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The Republicans, as the old saying goes, never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, demonstrated that truism when he announced his big education initiative last week. 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. So rather than a real debate on who should control education-government or parents-we’ll have a pseudo debate about whether federal policy should consist of carrots or sticks. Yawn.

Mr. Bush said 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. The withdrawn money would be added to new federal money and given to the respective states, which could use it to send the children to other public schools, charter schools, or private schools. Failing schools would have three years to improve before losing the money.

This is what passes for innovative policymaking in America these days.

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 Bush’s plan calls for.

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

First, the 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 Second, the money withdrawn would be given to state governments, which would control how it is used.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.

By not questioning the very principle of a federal role in education, Governor Bush embraces that role and seeks to leave his mark on it. But his policy would differ only in minor ways from whoever his Democratic opponent is. Both Al Gore and Bill Bradley favor federal meddling in education.

The debate between Governor Bush and either Democrat will be over carrot 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 Americans who have lived through the computer revolution, largely a product of free markets, should have no trouble gring 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.