A 'To-Do' List for the Next Education President

Education bubbled back to the top of the presidential election this month, as both candidates pushed reform agendas in front of hostile audiences. John McCain issued a stinging rebuke to those who put teacher-union politics ahead of kids -- in a speech at the union-loving NAACP.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama was actually booed while accepting the endorsement of the National Education Association, the nation's biggest teachers' union, because he reiterated his support for differential pay (merit pay, higher salaries for math and science teachers, bonuses for teaching in the worst schools, etc.). He also reminded the union that he supports charter schools.

But what can a president actually do about education, which is an area of state authority rather than federal? Some education reformers leapt to make that point in the wake of McCain's remarks. It's a question worth asking, because education is going to come up again before this campaign is over.

Well, here are five things the next education president (they're all "education presidents" these days) can do to improve the nation's schools without expanding federal authority over education beyond its current level:

1) Expand the D.C. voucher program to make it a national model. After the Democrats took over Congress, most people thought the federally funded voucher program in Washington D.C. would be toast. But, lo and behold, the chairman of the relevant House subcommittee has given the program a one-year pass and seems to be angling for a deal.

The thing is, the D.C. voucher system is actually not a very good program. It's restricted to a relatively small number of students. Applicants need to fill out an absurd 17-page form to get in and it pays cash bribes to the decrepit, patronage-bloated D.C. school system for the students who do leave. This undermines the healthy, competitive incentives vouchers would otherwise bring to bear on public schools.

But what if the D.C. program were transformed into a national model for school choice done right? The next education president could propose to make every D.C. student eligible, make the program easy for parents to use, and restructure the bribes so that they don't reward failure in the public system.

Obviously a big political fight would ensue, and the end result would not give voucher proponents everything they wanted. They might well get nothing at all.

But it would still be a fight worth having. If we're going to be guided by the empirical evidence on what makes public schools better, competition from school choice is by far the most reliable strategy for improving public schools (among those for which we have evidence). Their success in improving public schools is one reason they're so politically successful. The best thing the next president can do for education is to keep vouchers at the top of the national agenda. And it doesn't hurt that the fight is a political winner, especially in D.C., where the public schools are particularly atrocious.