Bill Bennett: Conservatives, we’ve got a rare opportunity to lead on education

Fox News | Bill Bennett | 7.28.16

Ahead of the Democratic National Convention this week, party leaders recently released the official Democratic policy platform. Not surprisingly, when it comes to education—an issue that has long been considered a mainstay of the Left—the agenda bends to teachers’ unions and other interest groups at odds with meaningful education reforms.

Americans deserve better, and they can do better. The 2016 election cycle, coupled with the overdue reforms delivered in the Every Student Succeeds Act, presents an opportunity for conservatives to re-stake the Republican Party as the champion of prudent and pragmatic education policy. And we can do so by articulating positions with a proven track-record of success: Greater local control, parental choice, high academic standards and aligned assessments, and honest frameworks for measuring student development and keeping teacher, principals, and districts accountable.

Already, momentum is in our favor. In December, the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law with broad bipartisan support. The law forever ends No Child Left Behind and marks a historic return of control over education issues to state and local authorities—from classroom expectations to funding to accountability measures and beyond. The law has been heralded as a “huge win for conservatives,” but to ensure these reforms translate to tangible results will require conservative leaders to offer solutions, especially at the local level.

This week I was proud to join several Republican leaders from across the country to launch Conservative Leaders for Education. Comprised of conservative-minded state lawmakers and education policy makers, the coalition is committed to advocating principled policy as states begin to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act.

At the same time, the organization will serve as a clearinghouse of best practices, where educators, policymakers and the public can share ideas and contribute to a constructive policy discussion.

The formation of Conservative Leaders for Education comes at a pivotal time. Over the past thirty years the United States has gradually ceded control of education to a centralized, big government. Faced with rigid mandates from Washington, policymakers often inflated performance measures by systematically lowering the bar for schools. As a result, many students were often told they were on track to graduate high school prepared for college or a career, when in fact they were not.

That reality has fueled the remediation crisis on college campuses. Today, more than 50 percent of first-time students at community colleges and nearly 20 percent of those entering four-year institutions need remediation to learn skills they should have mastered in high school. About four in 10 students who take remedial coursework will never complete a degree. And it’s not just at-risk students who take a hit; 45 percent of students who place into remediation come from middle- and high-income families.

While Washington’s role in education has grown, so too has special interest groups’ influence on policy development. Over the past several decades teachers’ unions have steadily increased lobbying efforts, which have roundly opposed any mention of accountability. Out of those campaigns underperforming teachers have found themselves comfortably immune from answering to student outcomes, while the public has received less actionable information about how well their kids are doing.

It is time we push past old education models which put the wellbeing of adults (unions, administrators, teachers, etc…) ahead of students. The Every Student Succeeds Act has sown the groundwork for conservative leaders to stand up for the principles and policies that will leave a meaningful and lasting footprint. And with record levels of Republican control at the state level, right now we have a rare opportunity to cement local control over education, school choice, honest accountability and high-level content in our schools and classrooms.

Those goals won’t be easily won. Unions and entrenched special interests will continue to unilaterally oppose measures that require them to answer to student performance and the effectiveness of schools. Many have already called on the U.S. Department of Education to regulate implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, even though many proposals violate the intention of the law. If conservatives are hesitant to take the lead, liberals will.

Fortunately, there are leaders within the Republican Party to carry this banner. Governor Mike Pence, who was recently tapped as the vice presidential nominee, has achieved remarkable success expanding school choice in Indiana, which now boasts one of the largest voucher programs in the country. Just as commendable are the citizen advocates, like those participating in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conference this week, who demand education be accountable to those closest to it.

The Every Student Succeeds Act marks a unique devolution of the federal overreach into education. For the first time in decades, states will have nearly full autonomy over, and responsibility for, the outcomes of their students. I urge conservative leaders, parents and educators to join us in advancing principled policies that will ensure this moment produces the type of education systems that will equip our young people to lead.

William J. Bennett is a former U.S. Secretary of Education for President Ronald Reagan and host of America Strong: The Bill Bennett Podcast.