State of Our Schools

Empowering Educational Options is a Priority of the US DOE


Deputy Secretary Dr. Mick Zais visited New Hampshire on September 30th as guest of the Department of Education and Commissioner Frank Edelblut. He spoke to a large group of educators, administrators, legislators, parents, and family advocates about the US Department of Education’s view of public education and goals. This article reports his remarks to the best of our ability, with documents (part 1 and part 2) shared at the conclusion of Dr. Zais’ presentation.

American education is not working for too many students. Per the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), widely referred to as the “Nation’s report card,” only 2/3 of 8th graders are not proficient in any subject. The US is ranked 24th in the world for education, and 40th in math.

Affluent families can already access quality education for their children. They have the means to enroll in private schools or move to higher-performing districts while poor children languish in poorly performing districts.

From 1965 to 2015, per student funding has risen 300%, adjusted for inflation. That is $13,000 per student with an average of 21 children in each class. With the average teacher earning $60,000 per year, where does the rest of the money go? It goes to layers of bureaucracy. Over this time, non-teaching staff has grown to 9x the student enrollment.

(This is consistent with a 2012 study by EdChoice.)

Education is a $700 Billion industry, yet test scores are flat, US international scores are plummeting, and the bureaucracy is exploding.

(This is consistent with another 2012 study by the Cato Institute.)

“The only way to improve the system is to tell the truth.”

The 2012 Klein-Rice report characterized the US as “facing a national security crisis” and found that the education system is known for bureaucracy with little innovation, and is not equipping students for employment or military service.

In the early 1980s President Ronald Reagan initiated a National Commission on Excellence in Education. Their report is “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” that sparked changes at the national, state, and local levels.

Too many teachers are at the bottom of their high school and college classes. The US education system has short school days and academic years. We have a generation that is not prepared with the skills of previous generations. It is an “act of war.”

Today, conditions are worse; we are a nation at greater risk.

Human capital is more important than financial capital. Teacher effectiveness is more important than the school the child attends. A bad teacher can set a student back nine months, whereas a good teacher impacts student test scores and life outcomes for the positive.

Teacher and principal incomes are not correlated to student success. Professors at colleges are rewarded for their subject expertise and student success. By comparison, union officials can earn upwards of $500,000 annually.

President Obama said that after parents, teachers are the most influential people in children’s lives.

Teacher tenure protects the least competent teachers and hurts students. The problem is not the teachers, but the bureaucracy that limits the power of those in the system. Elected officials and legislators stifle innovation by creating more standards, implementing more requirements, and demanding more testing and reports.

On average, the US public school system has 17 school districts per county with fewer than three schools in each.

Districts are part of the bureaucracy. Too often school boards limit principals and teachers, stifling innovation, initiative, and creativity.

Ironically, early childhood education and higher education allows freedom where federal and state money follows the students. It’s only in K-12 education that money funds the system, not students.

A recent Gallop poll shows there is less confidence in the system; only 29% have “great confidence” in public education.

“US education does not need to be reformed; it needs to be transformed.”

Education freedom empowers students, parents, and teachers. Parents know their children best.

Education Freedom Scholarships can be used for various educational needs: dual enrollment, certifications, therapies for special education, transportation, industry-based certifications and more. Administration will be at the state level, not federal.

A study by Education Next shows support for Education Freedom Scholarships.

It’s time to worry about school students, not the school system. Students need education freedom. The country needs independence for those in the system.

In the second half of the presentation, Dr. Zais took questions submitted by the audience.

Q1: Common Core is a known failure. What will the DOE do to remove it?

A1: It is intrusive and a heavy-hand of federal government into state education. It works counter to recognizing every child is special and has unique needs.

Q2: Is it appropriate to apply business models to education?

A2: I studied organizational behavior in my educational pursuits. It involves accountability, incentives and competition. These are missing in education. They drive innovation and improvement.

Q3: Please comment on teacher credentialing and portability of credentials.

A3: Teacher training is a barrier to entry. Current credentialing does not evaluate competency in subject disciplines. Experts in hard-sciences know their subject matter and may teach at universities, but are not able to teach K-12 without particular credentials unique to teaching. This is a state, not federal issue. Years ago, Massachusetts had rigorous standards for teachers to enter the profession; the Praxis exam standards were higher. Teach for America provides competition to the existing system.

Q4: Does the Education Freedom Scholarships allow discrimination of students with special needs? Parents are too uninformed or misinformed to make these decisions. How would homeless children qualify?

A4: The US and every state is responsible for civil rights laws and nondiscrimination compliance. I take exception with the idea that parents are too stupid to make educational choices for their children. Parents know their children best and want the best for them.

The Education Freedom Scholarships would be administered by each state and they would set up non-profit scholarship programs to figure out how to use the scholarship funds.

Q5: What about teacher pay and compensation?

A5: There is an imbalance; incompetent administrators and teachers receive higher incomes while good teachers are not paid well, especially in competitive subjects. This is why many people who have skills and expertise in certain areas do not pursue teaching as a profession. Unions are the problem. It’s a matter of supply and demand.

Q6: Please comment on the international test scores. The US tests all students whereas other countries cherry-pick the best students for testing.

A6: The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) controls student samples which is a broad range of students.

Q7: What are the leadership lessons and career paths for students? What about the $1.6 Trillion student loan crisis?

A7: Not every student is destined for college. Many children are messaged from an early age that they must attend a four-year college. My son went into the military after high school. Once discharged, he attended community college and pursued credentialing and ways to improve his technical skills. Every person has different gifts and aspirations.

Student aid drives up the cost of college. Award letters from FAFSA are actually loan agreements. The student loan situation is similar to the housing/mortgage bubble of several years ago. Right now, only 23% of people with student loans pay towards principle and interest; the rest, 77%, are paying less. This is a crisis waiting to happen. Federal student loans need to have best banking practices implemented into the system.

Q8: Tell us about US DOE Secretary Betsy DeVos’ Education Freedom Scholarship tour.

A8: Representatives of the US DOE have crisscrossed the country talking about the scholarships, to numerous states and schools. We want teachers, students, and parents to have freedom – to be free to innovate and fail. That is when we have success.

On our way out of the facility, I started a casual conversation with another attendee. I asked what she thought of Dr. Zais’ remarks. Before she answered, she wanted to introduce ourselves and said she is an administrator at ConVal, but I didn’t catch her name. After I introduced myself, she became visibly agitated. She was very upset by Dr. Zais’ comments. She said that the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is grossly underfunded by the federal government, and schools are given conflicting responsibilities and expectations. While I told her that I agreed with her, she stormed off unwilling to discuss it further.