Finding a Conservative Compass in Federal Education Policy

Campaigning in 1980, Ronald Reagan pledged to abolish the newly minted Department of Education, which he dubbed "President Carter’s new bureaucratic boondoggle."

President Reagan wanted to improve learning opportunities for children across the nation, and he knew that federal involvement wasn’t the answer. Instead, Reagan believed that the surest way to improve education is to let parents and local governments set policies that meet their children’s needs.

Reagan never was able to convince Congress to end the federal government’s meddling in local education. And today, under the watch of a Republican president and a Republican-controlled Congress, federal spending on K-12 education is up by 46 percent since President Clinton left office.

With all that money has come more and more federal control. While the federal government funds only 8 percent of K-12 public education costs, No Child Left Behind has led Washington to involve itself in student testing, teacher training, and classroom instruction, muscling aside individual schools, local boards, and state authorities.

Clearly, education is one of the areas where the principles of the Reagan presidency have been forgotten. In their new book "Getting America Right," Ed Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, and Doug Wilson of outline a strategy to reverse that slide and reinvigorate the core principles of conservatism.

"And what are those core principles?," Feulner and Wilson ask. "They are nothing less than what has made America great…free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, a strong national defense, and the rule of law."

"Getting America Right" is a handbook for individual citizens and elected officials to put those principles into practice. The authors evaluate all policy issues through a prism of six questions. When it comes to federal education policy, one key question stands out: "Is it the government’s business?"

According to Feulner and Wilson, America’s Founding Fathers had a good answer to that question. "The Founders omitted education from Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, laying out the powers of the government," they write. "The omission was no accident. The Founders understood the importance of making educational decisions at the local level. It is the right and responsibility of parents, after all, to see to it that their children are…given the necessary knowledge and skills to allow them to make their own way in the world."

Now that the federal government spends $66 billion per year on K-12 education and exerts so much control over public schools, how can citizens give life to the conservative principles of parental and local control? Devolving federal authority in education won’t happen quickly, but it’s time to start towards that goal.

First, Congress can work to eliminate wasteful, unnecessary, and duplicative programs. The 42 programs identified for elimination in the Bush Administration’s budget should be ended. Second, Congress can reform existing programs such as No Child Left Behind to give parents greater control over how their children’s share of federal funding is spent.

But for the long term, conservatives should think even more boldly.

With charter schools, scholarship programs, and school vouchers growing in popularity across the nation, Congress should use federal education policy to expand parental choice further. Rather than funding bureaucrats, programs, and school systems, the federal government should provide money directly to families and let parents decide how to spend this money on behalf of their children.

If all of the $66 billion in federal K-12 education funding were put into grants for disadvantaged students, such as children from low-income families and those with special needs, tens of millions of parents would have the power of school choice. Finally, parents would again control education policy in America — not politicians, education bureaucrats, or teachers unions.

Ronald Reagan’s dream of abolishing the Department of Education may seem a distant memory. But it is instructive today. Conservatives must conceive a new and no less bold conservative vision for education — one that returns control to parents. That’s a goal President Reagan would have heartily cheered, and it is a big part of, as Feulner and Wilson put it, "Getting America Right."