Forget Washington: Let’s Reform Education at the State Level

The problem with education is not that we don't spend enough. The system and the people in the system have to change.

By Donald Nielsen Published on March 22, 2015

Members of Congress debating reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act mean well, but real reform will not originate in the halls of Congress. It will emerge instead from statehouses, where leaders are best positioned to implement real and lasting change.

It’s the System and the People, Not the Money

We’ve heard it a thousand times: if we spend more money on education and shrink class sizes, everything will be better. But we now spend three times as much per child in inflation-adjusted dollars as we did in 1970. We have four times as many adults in our schools as we did then. Yet the dropout rate and test scores have barely budged.

It is the system and the people who populate it that need to change. Today, 7000 kids a day drop out — almost 1.3 million students a year. Today, 57% of dropouts are unemployed and 65% of those incarcerated in our prisons are high school dropouts. The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation — Russia is number 2. We now rank 20th in high school graduation and 24th in college graduation. China graduates 10 times as many engineers per year as the U.S. Of those engineers we do graduate, half are foreign students.

We used to be a manufacturing, agrarian and domestic economy. We are now a global information and tech economy. Despite these changes, our schools have been frozen in amber. Our system of public education is obsolete.

Before we tackle the system, however, we need to dramatically improve the people that populate it at all levels, but particularly in teaching, leadership and governance. We certainly have some quality teachers and principals in our schools — but we don’t have nearly enough and those who excel do so in spite of the system, not because of it. We need to help them and others like them transform the system.


 Teaching is the easiest profession to enter. All you need is a high school diploma and tuition money. The college with the lowest SAT scores on any campus is the education school. With a glut of education schools, to apply is to get in, and to get in is to graduate and to graduate is to get hired.

Three years later, you have tenure.

After the parents, a good teacher is the most important element in the education of a child. With our present system of teacher selection and training, we can’t improve the teaching corps. The culprit is obsolete certification laws, which give education schools a monopoly over the supply of human capital that can work in our schools.

Like any monopoly, over time they become ineffective and inefficient. They keep our best and brightest out of the profession. The MIT-trained education entrepreneur Salman Kahn would be locked out of the public schools because he lacks an official teaching rubber stamp. This is madness.

Our first step should be to eliminate these laws, so schools can hire the best people for the job. Education schools would have to improve to justify their existence or go out of business. Either would benefit children.

Certification laws are a state issue, not a federal issue.


 Quality teachers will not work for incompetent principals and superintendents, so we must also improve leadership. Whenever you see or hear about a high performing school, you can be assured that a high-performing principal leads it. However, to be a principal, you need only have taught for 2-3 years and have tuition for a one-year principal program at an education school. You don’t have to have been a good teacher, you don’t have to have any proven leadership qualities and you don’t need letters of recommendation. In other words, you don’t need to be qualified.

In education, we get leadership by accident, not by design. Certification laws are again the culprit. We must again get rid of these laws that give education schools a monopoly over the training of principals for our schools and of Superintendents for our districts. Quality leadership is essential to improve our schools.

Besides improving our schools, improved leadership will reduce the power of unions. Today, union membership in the private sector is declining, and yet union membership has grown exponentially in the government sector, and particularly in our schools. Public education is now the largest government employment program with the strongest union. With effective management, we should see union power weaken as teachers figure out they no longer needed a union to protect them from incompetent leaders.

Principal and Superintendent certification laws are a state issue, not a federal issue.


 Elected school boards, especially in urban systems, are not working. Often the candidates are social activists, single-issue fanatics, or union sympathizers, who may be fine people but rarely do a good job of running schools. In urban systems, I would recommend having appointed school boards or even eliminating them altogether and having the superintendent join the mayor’s cabinet. This latter idea would only work if the Superintendent was an extraordinary leader. Schools are the most important institution in any city and most mayors have no control over them.

Changing the governance structure is a state issue, not a federal issue.

Change the People to Change the System

None of these suggestions require more money. If we can populate our schools with top-notch professionals they will begin to change the system. It’s already happening in charter schools and some public schools. Quality people would not tolerate the system we have now. Trying to change the system without improving the people in the system would be a waste of time and money.

Since these are all state rather than federal issues, we just need a bold governor and a state legislature to get started.


 Donald P. Nielsen is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, Former President of the Seattle School Board and author of Every School: One Citizens’ Guide to Transforming Education.

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