Should America declare war on the education status quo? That's the lesson we should draw from recent remarks by Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif. At a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth and Families in Anaheim, California last week, Sanchez called education a "national security" issue. The solution, according to her: More say-so from Washington.
"This is a national security issue," argued Sanchez. "We have to protect our resources, and our most important resource is our children. That's why Congress needs to have oversight."
The irony is that Sanchez made the statement at a hearing about getting parents, local businesses and community groups more involved in public schools.
It is true that education is a national issue. It has been for a long time. Right now, the federal government contributes about 6 percent of money spent on elementary and secondary education. Congress would like to do more. But with more money comes more oversight, more bureaucracy, more meddling, and more of what's made America's schools worse.
"Even though the decisions come at the local district level, we (Congress) need to be in partnership with them," Sanchez said.
Let's face it, "national security" and "partnership" are codewords for more bureaucratic monkey business. What many in Congress Republicans and Democrats alike have in mind is a national education system in which states have little role and Washington sets curriculum, funding and education priorities.
Taken to its logical extreme, it would affect how state governments fund schools, how school boards may manage their districts, what teachers may say in their classrooms, and ultimately how parents raise their children.
President Clinton started using the national security analogy in 1995, just after the Republicans took over Congress and vowed to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education.
"Cutting education right now is like trying to cut defense during the Cold War," Clinton said over and over to the PTA, the National Education Association, and other friendly audiences.
But Clinton's speechwriters were borrowing from the Republicans, who were the flagbearers of education reform in the '80s.
"We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament," the National Commission on Excellence Education announced in 1983. The commission's report, "A Nation at Risk," exposed how a generation of education fads led to a massive decline in student knowledge and performance.
The rhetoric worked. That's why education reform ranks at the top of most public opinion polls and the federal government's role in it has grown rather than shrunk since '95.
Trouble is, many of the weapons that Congress would use to fight for reform are about as archaic as the B-29 bomber and as clumsy and slow as the Sherman tank.
The "smart weapons" in the education reform fight have come not from Washington, but at the state and local level. Charter schools, vouchers for the neediest students, tutoring programs for learning disabled kids, and most successful after-school programs are either state-based or privately-funded innovations.
Most of the parents, teachers and community leaders who testified in Orange County seemed to understand and touted that fact.
But instead of urging the government to butt out and let these local and private initiatives flourish, many of the teachers, parents, and community leaders urged Congress working 3,000 miles away to meddle even more.
Washington can "help create positive environments within the classroom," said the director of Project Tomorrow, a community science-education program. "Start with students and teachers in good environments, middle school, after school...facilitate a questioning-type environment."
The director of a local Boys and Girls Club chapter proposed that the federal government "reimburse businesses for letting parents take time off from work to help out at school."
This is what it has come to. Most people in education hope the federal government can work miracles. But education, like welfare and state-run industries, shows that the federal government does not solve problems, it makes them worse.
Education needs freedom, accountability and a serious study of what works.
Most everyone agrees that the single most important influence on children is their parents. But too many American parents think that the government can do what parents can't. The education establishment knows this, and has exploited that fact, which is why it has become so powerful.
"At a formal level, we can't control (what goes on at home)," said Jerry Silverman, a member of the Anaheim City School Board. Two-income families have arisen just so parents can stay one step ahead of a tax man that takes nearly half of what they earn. The result is that kids are consigned to daycare even if mom wants to stay home.
For people like Silverman, this is an argument for Head Start and universal pre-school. But remember that just 40 years ago, advocates of universal kindergarten promised the same benefits as today's advocates of universal preschool.
We need to focus on what the federal government's effect has been on public schools. The United States spends more on education than ever before. Compared to a defense build up, education spending has increased phenomenally. Yet, education and achievement have stagnated for the last 20 years. Why?
Before a nation goes to war, it is always important to know what weapons work and which ones are outdated. Airstrikes from Washington can't solve the problem on the ground. Only parents, teachers, and state authorities can do that.