Amid all the angst in conservative circles, there is some good news—in the form of two far-reaching education reform proposals introduced by veteran Rep. John Boehner (R.-Ohio).
Boehner cut his teeth in the early 1990s as a relentless fiscal hawk and rabble-rousing member of a group of backbench House reformers called the “Gang of Seven.” Even as many of his colleagues were “growing in office” and disappointing conservatives, Boehner retained his enthusiasm for aggressive (and conservative) policymaking while rising to the fourth-highest position in the House Republican leadership and, five years ago, to chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee.
This week Boehner and freshman Rep. Bobby Jindal (R.-La.) proposed the creation of Family Education Reimbursement Accounts. These innocuous-sounding accounts, if enacted, could ultimately redefine the financing of K-12 education. Boehner wants to funnel all Hurricane Katrina-related education assistance directly to the region’s 372,000 dislocated families, thereby bypassing education bureaucrats.
Boehner’s is the most ambitious education choice plan ever introduced in Congress. Under the proposal, eligible parents would receive up to $6,700 per eligible child to establish reimbursement accounts managed by private financial institutions. The accounts would allow them to select their child’s school—public, private or charter. The schools, in turn, would receive reimbursement payments directly from the parent, rather than having to negotiate with several layers of bureaucracy.
On cue, education bureaucrats rose in righteous anger. “The proposal,” National Education Association President Reg Weaver huffed, “is quite simply a voucher plan—directing federal funds to private and religious schools.” The nation’s largest teacher’s union, of course, reacts to vouchers like a vampire does to a cross. Weaver’s alternative approach has been introduced in the Senate by that body’s newest legislative duo—Mike Enzi (R.-Wyo.) and Teddy Kennedy (D.-Mass.). Known as “equitable participation,” the Enzi-Kennedy proposal would essentially maintain the public school monopoly over educational decision-making by placing severe and unnecessary limits on the ability of dislocated students to use those funds in private or religious schools.
According to Weaver, all federal assistance should “flow through public schools to pay for student services” and “control [should] rest with the school district or local education agency.”
The NEA’s unstated fear is that hoards of Gulf-region parents will send their kids to non-public schools. But these fears are overstated because public-school districts that deliver a quality education product to students can prosper when parents choose.
Case in point: Louisiana’s southernmost school district, Plaquemines Parish, reopened its doors recently to its 5,000 students and, by all accounts, would thrive under the Boehner-Jindal approach. According to Education Daily, pre-Katrina, “the district was a star in the state’s education reform movement.” Two-thirds of its students qualified for free or reduced lunch, yet these predominantly poor students exceeded the state average by 10 to 15 points on Louisiana’s 2004 math and English assessments.
Boehner’s other noteworthy legislation is the Setting Priorities in Spending Act, which would repeal 14 federal education programs that studies show are “inefficient, duplicative, or simply unnecessary.” The House has already voted to zero out $246 million in funding for these programs, but the Senate persists in keeping them on life support. Unless Congress drives a stake through their heart by deleting them from federal law, they will continue to rise from the dead like Dracula and receive funding year after year.
The programs slated for elimination duplicate efforts elsewhere in the federal government and have murky track records. The list includes funds for community technology centers, exchanges with historic whaling and trading partners (a slush fund for favored entities in Massachusetts, Hawaii and Alaska), prison-based education, foreign language, teacher training, distance education, learning through TV, and parent education efforts.
Eliminating failed federal programs is an integral element of any successful long-term strategy to overhaul K-12 education. Boehner’s two bills are complementary parts of such a successful strategy and should serve as a model for Hill leaders who want to address the federal government’s failures in policy areas as diverse as housing, health care, job training and welfare.