At the turn of the 21st century, the United States was trying to come to grips with a serious education crisis. The country was lagging behind its international peers, and a half-century effort to erode racial disparities in school achievement had made little headway. Many people expected action from the federal government.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the century’s first two presidents, took up the challenge. For all their differences on how best to stimulate economic growth, secure the national defense, and fix the health-care conundrum, the two presidents shared a surprisingly common approach to school reform: both preferred the regulatory strategy. In 2001, Bush persuaded Congress to pass a new law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which created the nation’s first reform-minded federal regulatory regime in education. When NCLB ran into trouble, Obama invented new ways of extending the top-down approach. Unfortunately, neither president came close to closing racial gaps or lifting student achievement to international levels.
The Obama administration is now packing up and heading home, leaving the regulatory machine in ruins. A new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), has unraveled most of the federal red tape. Although the mandate for student testing continues, the use of the tests is now a state and local matter. School districts and teachers unions are rubbing their hands at the prospect of reasserting local control.
With districts beset by collective bargaining agreements, organized special interests, and state requirements, choice and competition are the main levers of reform that remain. Vouchers and tax credits are slowly broadening their legal footing. Charter schools are growing in number, improving in quality, and beginning to pose genuine competition to public schools, especially within big cities. Introducing such competition is the best hope for American schools, because today’s public schools are showing little capacity to improve on their own.