President Obama unveils his fiscal year 2011 budget today.  In a January 29, 2010, email update to “Education Stakeholders,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explains that reform cannot wait. “Right now, 25 percent of our students fail to graduate high school, and as many as 60 percent of college freshmen need remedial education.  Millions of jobs are unfilled for lack of qualified applicants.  The President and I know that we need to educate our way to a better economy.” They plan to achieve that goal by bankrolling “cradle-to-career education for all of America’s children.”  Trouble is, decades of government spending on and micromanagement of education hasn’t worked.

Spending on government schools has more than doubled in real, inflation-adjusted terms since 1970, but student achievement has, at best, flatlined. Duncan promises “to work smarter and more efficiently.” But we shouldn’t believe that proposed spending increases will be any different just because he says so.

Why not stop funneling elementary and secondary education funding, including funding for preschool, through bloated bureaucracies and ineffective programs, and instead direct those resources to parents directly in the form of grants-as we currently do with college Pell Grants. Doing so would yield elementary and secondary education grants for all American school children worth more than $9,600. Here’s how.

As of the 2011-12 school year, current PK-12 spending from local, state, and federal sources, which excludes capital outlay and school debt, will total $540 billion in 2009 inflation-adjusted dollars based on 2011 estimates from Duncan’s own department.

That same year there will be approximately 56 million students enrolled in government-run public schools and private schools. That works out to average grants worth more than $9,600 per student. Those grants could be adjusted based on family income and size, and annually adjusted to keep up with cost increases.

Imagine if parents could do for their children what 18-year-olds are currently allowed to do for themselves: use public dollars to attend the schools they think are best. All schools would have powerful incentives to offer high-quality, low-cost programs to attract and retain students. As an added incentive for parents to choose wisely, let them deposit any remaining funds in tax-exempt education savings accounts (ESAs), which they could use to save for college or pay for additional education services such as tutoring for their children.

Such a plan, however, would put parents in charge of education rather than politicians and special interests. Based on this administration’s track record, relinquishing power is the last thing on the agenda-no matter how great the benefits to students, the economy, or taxpayers’ wallets.