School Choice Missing In Obama's Address

Students and teachers at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School began the school year with the ultimate back-to-school pep rally on Tuesday. President Obama delivered a speech to students at the highly-ranked Philadelphia magnet school, which was named a 2010 national "Blue Ribbon School."

Last year, the president delivered a back-to-school speech about the importance of staying in school and the merits of education, topics he reprised in this year's address. Last year's protocol included a letter from Education Secretary Arne Duncan to schools nationwide, complete with lesson plans for teachers. Of course, the lesson plans created a firestorm of backlash from critics, and we haven't seen a repeat this year.
Even absent federally-crafted lesson plans, however, the Obama administration's larger plans for reshaping the country's education system are worrisome. In fact, if the administration has its way, schools across the country will soon be required to teach according to a set of national education standards and tests.

National standards and tests would be a significant federal overreach into states' educational decision-making authority. But through the administration's $4.35 million “Race to the Top” competitive grant program, which provided grants to 11 states and the District of Columbia to implement prescribed education reforms, states have already begun adopting national standards.

To be in contention for a Race to the Top grant, states had to indicate that they would move toward adopting national standards and tests. And with most states facing severe budget shortfalls, the chance to win hundreds of millions of dollars in new grant money was enough for many to sign on to the proposal.

But several states have refused to sign on to the standards, which were developed by the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. But for the states not enticed by a RTT grant, the administration has indicated that they will tie access to Title I money for low-income schools to adoption of the standards.

If they succeed, the administration will have orchestrated a significant federal overreach into what is taught in local schools. They will have done so without a single vote in Congress, bypassing normal legislative procedure, and without input from parents and taxpayers.

If national standards and tests become reality, parents will lose one of their most powerful tools when it comes to directing their children's education: local and state control over academic content and standards. As if a distant bureaucrat in Washington knows what's best for -- or is significantly vested in -- the educational well-being of individual students.

The kind of data national standards and tests will make available will be far more useful to bureaucrats than to parents. What parents need most is transparency about all the existent data that’s collected, and, most importantly, the power to act on it.

We won’t gain educational opportunity and accountability by further centralizing educational power in Washington. This has been the trend for the past four decades, with little if anything to show for it. Despite decades of increasing federal control over education and a tripling of per-pupil expenditures, reading achievement has flat-lined, and graduation rates are the same today as they were in 1970.

If the president were truly interested in raising academic achievement and providing educational opportunity, he would have told students today how he plans to empower their parents to make the educational decisions that will lead to a future full of opportunity.

Sadly, President Obama's track record thus far on school choice is dismal. He is phasing out the most successful school voucher program in the country -- the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program -- because powerful special-interest groups, such as teachers' unions, oppose it. For scholarship students in Washington, D.C., listening to the president's speech may well have been a painful reminder that in most parts of the country, school choice is still an option only for those who can afford it.

The administration certainly deserves credit this year for encouraging states to lift caps on charter schools and to have open discussions about merit pay and tenure reform. But for those students in Philadelphia, and across the country, not lucky enough to enroll in a Blue Ribbon school (such as the one where Mr. Obama made his speech), the best back-to-school message they could hear would be one that encourages equal opportunity through school choice.

Lindsey M. Burke is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation

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