A Federal Education Agenda
The conservative approach to education policy is nothing if not confused. Conservatives cheer top-down federal standards and accountability while demanding bottom-up parental choice. They call for eliminating the federal Department of Education, but support spending on major federal education programs like Title I aid for disadvantaged students, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and student loans. They treat restoring “local control” as a panacea, while neglecting the fact that “local control” strengthens the grip of teachers’ unions. They grumble about the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act, but forget that the legislation passed with solid conservative support. They have applauded components of the Obama administration’s education policies, even as those policies have taken federal overreach to new levels.
This incoherence is bad for conservatives and bad for the country. Lacking a sound, focused approach to federal education policy, conservatives have largely ceded the work of reform to progressives, who embrace sweeping national solutions and put unwarranted faith in the wisdom of federal bureaucracies.
This stance has proved to be a liability, and has made it difficult for conservatives to offer much more than shopworn talking points. In May, Mitt Romney released his agenda for K-12 education reform, emphasizing familiar themes: school choice, innovation, transparency, and local control. But the Romney plan offers no insight into what the federal government does and does not do well when it comes to education. Romney can do better; as the Republican Party’s standard-bearer this year, he has an opportunity to demonstrate to the public that conservatives can recognize a constructive, if limited, role for the federal government in education.