The always-astute Diane Ravitch has a must-read piece on education in today’s Wall Street Journal:

The issue today is between those who want to federalize education policy and those who want to maintain state and local control of the public schools.

Historically, the GOP has always been the party of local control, and for most of the 20th century Republicans opposed almost every effort by Democrats to expand the power of the federal government over the nation’s public classrooms.

Ravitch points out that President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act extended the tentacles of the federal government into public education and President Obama’s Race to the Top fund goes even further, using a $5 billion discretionary purse to push “unproven” theories. Ravitch writes:

The present course is virtually the opposite of what high-performing nations do. Countries like Finland, Japan and South Korea have improved their schools by offering a rich and broad curriculum in the arts and sciences, not by focusing only on testing basic skills, as we do. These nations have succeeded by recruiting, training and supporting good teachers, and giving continuing help to those that need it. The Obama administration, by contrast, has disregarded the importance of retention and improvement of teachers, while encouraging an influx of non-professionals into the field.

The Education Department, for example, recently awarded Teach for America $50 million to scale up its recruitment of smart college graduates who agree to teach for two years. The organization now offers five weeks of training to about 8,000 prospective teachers each year. While such a program is admirable, it doesn’t help to replace the 300,000 teachers who retire or leave the profession annually. The teaching profession needs large numbers of well-prepared, experienced professionals, not constant turnover.

Ravitch says that it is time for the GOP to decide whether it supports top-down reform from Washington or the local leadership.