This article was published by the American Enterprise Institute on August 19, 2015. It can be seen here

The 2015 New Hampshire Education Summit hit a powerful stride on the morning of Wednesday, August 19th, putting six presidential hopefuls and numerous experts in discussion of how education reform can become a meaningful part policy proposals for 2016. According to Representative Luke Messer, the forum represented a “sea change, driven by parents, the consumers” of education on their children’s behalf: “the pursuit of happiness means access to and choice of quality education.”

Across the day, speakers in discussions moderated by Campbell Brown included Governor Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, and governors John Kasich, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and Chris Christie.

Gerard Robinson, Resident Fellow in Education Policy Studies at AEI, moderated a panel of Representative Luke Messer (R-IN 6th district) and Allysia Finley of the Wall Street Journal. The panel first addressed the major question in the education reform debate: what should the role of the federal government be, asked Robinson, in a reformed education system?

Messer offered some startling statistics, namely that the US spends $300 billion on education; he insisted throughout we should “take money we spend and put it in hands of parents.” He later discussed how public schools especially improve if parents have school choice. Schools learn to compete, as in Indiana, where “you see billboards advertising public schools. At the end of the day, trust parents, they have their kids’ best interest at heart… they are the real drivers of change.”

Finley emphasized that the first duty of the federal government is “not to squash state-level reforms.” She moved on to say that the government has a valuable role to play in ensuring access to information on local and state-school performance. Testing is one imperfect way to hold them accountable: “everyone has an incentive to cover up the problems, and unless you post results, this will persist.”

As for recommendations to the future president, both advocated for the portability of Title 1 funds, a “major breakthrough” if achieved as early as 2017. Portability would allow funds of anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 per student to go towards the schools of the parents’ choosing. (Finley noted that the Obama administration has been “vehemently opposed.”)

Finley, however, does believe that meaningful change is happening at the state level, citing the trigger laws in many states, including California – where only 91, or 0.002% of teachers, have been dismissed in the past ten years for incompetence. She also cited the recent Vergara v. California case, where arguments for equal protection under the law were used to overturn tenure laws that protect underperforming schools and were believed to worsen the achievement gap.

Despite the heavy discussion of the government and parents as actors in reform, panelists did stress the role of community leaders, including faith leaders in inner cities who have an incredible bully pulpit power as advocates for education. They also honed in on teachers. Messer insisted we remember that “teachers too are caught in a broken system that makes it very hard to do their jobs;” we must champion teachers and “restore respect to k-12 education.” Part of that restoration, Finley added, is holding teachers accountable for their performance; when bad teachers have job security, “it is demoralizing for the teachers who do their job well.”

Robinson concluded by asking the panelists what they would advise high school students today. Messer came prepared: “Dream big. Work a plan. Never quit.” The same could be said of the drive for education reform: as he said, “It’s not enough to win the debate once. The forces of the status quo are relentless,” but “2017 could be the most important year of the history of education in this country if we do the work now.”

For more on the summit, click here and watch the video, including clips of the presidential candidates, here. For Gerard Robinson’s panel specifically, please watch below starting at 2:09:40.

The New Hampshire Education Summit 2015