Speeches

Later today the Senate will vote on the “Every Student Succeeds Act” – a bill that reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is the legislation governing federal K-12 education policy.

By all accounts, the Senate is expected to pass this bill, with a bipartisan majority, and President Obama is expected to sign it into law.

This would be a serious setback for America’s schools, teachers, and students, one that will have sweeping consequences for decades to come... because when we get education policy wrong – as this bill does and as we have for so many years – it affects not just the quality of education students receive as children, but the quality of life available to them as adults.

The problem is not just the particular provisions of this bill, but the dysfunctional and outdated model of education on which it’s built – a model that concentrates authority over education decisions in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats, instead of parents, teachers, principals, and local school boards.

For the past 50 years, this model has defined and guided the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – and the bill before us today is no exception.

Not coincidentally, this central-planning model has also failed to produce any meaningful improvements in academic achievement – especially for students from low-income communities.  

In fact, since 1969, test scores in reading and math have hardly budged for public school students of all ages – even while per-pupil spending has nearly doubled and school staff has increased more than 80 percent.  

And yet, here we are: once again on the verge of passing another ESEA reauthorization built on the same K-12 education model that has trapped so many kids in failing schools and confined America’s education system to a state of stagnant mediocrity for half a century.

This is not simply a failure of policy – it’s a failure of imagination.

Our 1960s-era, top-down model of elementary and secondary schooling has endured, essentially unchallenged, for so many decades that the education establishment has come to take it for granted. For many policymakers and education officials in Washington and in state capitals around the country, the status quo isn’t just seen as the best way – but as the only way – to design K-12 education policy today.

Even the most creative policy thinking is confined within the narrow boundaries of the centrally planned status quo.

The only reform proposals that are given the time of day are those that seek to standardize America’s classrooms, enforce uniformity across school districts, and systematize the way that teachers teach and the way that students learn.

So we insist that the most important teaching decisions – about what to teach, when to teach it, and how to assess learning – are made by individuals outside of the classroom and are uniformly applied, and reapplied, regardless of the particular character and composition of a class.

We expect students of the same age to progress through the curriculum and master each subject at the exact same pace.

We assign students to their school according to zip codes.

We allocate public education funds to education agencies and schools – never directly to parents – and manage their use through bureaucratic restrictions and mandates.

We evaluate teachers and determine their compensation not on the basis their performance, but according to standards that can be quantified, like the number of years on the job. Student learning is assessed in much the same way – using standardized tests and age-based benchmarks.

And we never let stagnant educational outcomes or a persistent achievement gap shake our faith in the ability of central planners to engineer and superintend the education of the tens of millions of students in America.

These are the fundamental pillars of the status quo model for elementary and secondary education. And the Every Student Succeeds Act leaves them wholly intact.

But schools are not factories; education can’t be systematized; learning can’t be centrally planned.

Good teachers are successful not because they’re following some magic formula concocted by “experts” in Washington, but because they do what good teachers everywhere have always done: they work harder than just about anyone, and they know their class material inside and out; they communicate early and often with each students’ parents, so that they, and their students, can be held accountable; they observe and listen to their students, in order to understand their unique learning needs and goals, and tailor each day’s lesson plans accordingly; and they evaluate students honestly and comprehensively, assessing whether they’ve mastered the material, not just figured out how to take a test.

So instead of imposing an obsolete conformity on an invariably varied environment, we should be empowering teachers and parents with the tools they need to meet the unique educational needs of their students and children.

Instead of continuing to standardize and systematize education across the entire country, we should be trying to customize and personalize it for every student.

The good news is that we don’t need to start from scratch.

We know that local control over K-12 – and even pre-K – education is more effective than Washington, D.C.’s prescriptive, heavy handed approach, because we’ve seen it work in communities all across the country.

For years, education entrepreneurs in the states – including my home state of Utah – have been implementing and refining policies that put parents, teachers, principals, and school boards back in control of education policy.

Perhaps the most popular state-initiated reform is the movement toward school choice, which overturns the embarrassingly outdated and unfair practice of assigning schools based on zip codes.

We know that a good education starting at a young age is an essential ingredient for economic opportunity and democratic citizenship later in life. And we also know that America has always aspired to be a place where the condition of your birth doesn’t determine your path in life.

So why on earth would we prohibit parents from choosing the school that’s best for their children, especially if, as is far too common, their local school is underperforming?

School choice is one of the most important locally driven reforms aimed at resolving this fundamental injustice of our current assignment-by-zip-code system. But it’s not the only one.

There are also Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), which give parents control over the per-pupil education dollars that would have been spent on their child by the school system.

There is the recent innovation of “course choice” – pioneered in my home state of Utah – which brings the same kind of education customization and à la carte choice that have spread on college campuses to elementary and secondary schools.

And of course there’s the distinctively American notion that parents, principals, school districts, and state officials have the right, and should have the ability, to opt-out of the most onerous, restrictive, misguided federal commands.

Whether it’s parents who don’t want their children wasting dozens of hours each year taking standardized tests, or state policymakers who develop local education reforms that are more effective and less expensive than federal one-size-fits-all policies, we should support the rights of all Americans to have a say in the education of their children. 

Mr. President, the point isn’t that there’s a better way to improve America’s schools – but that there are fifty better ways... even thousands of better ways.

In our increasingly decentralized world, there are as many ideal education policies as there are children and teachers, communities and schools.

But Washington is standing in the way, distrustful of any alternative to the top-down education status quo. And under the Every Student Succeeds Act, Washington’s outdated, conformist policies will continue to be in the way.

Which is why I urge all of my colleagues to join me in voting against this bill.

But even if most senators vote in favor of the failed status quo, I’m confident that I have the majority of moms and dads in America on my side.

I often hear from Utah parents, calling or writing my office to express their support for local control over education.

I recently received an email from Kierston, a proud mother of four and the PTA president at her local school, who urged me to vote against this ESEA reauthorization.

I thought I’d let her have the last word today.

Based on years of experience with the public schools in her community, Kierston warns that maintaining Washington D.C.’s monopoly over America’s public schools will

“force my three incredibly different children who learn in very different ways into a box where my daughter will be forced to learn things she isn't ready to learn [...] my oldest who is ahead of his peers will be forced to slow down or help teach his peers in a way they don't understand [...] and my third will constantly be in trouble for not sitting still and pestering his peers because he understands quickly and is bored.”

“We need standards, we need benchmarks,” Kierston wrote, “but we also need to allow children to learn at their own pace. [...] We need child centered education where children have the ability to go as fast or as slow as they need. [...] Please think about the children of Utah. Vote against [the ESEA reauthorization]. Allow our kids the freedom to learn.”