House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently offered a preview of
Democrats' plans for No Child Left Behind reauthorization: "So
different will this bill be from the original No Child Left Behind,
we're thinking of changing its name."
The House Education and Labor Committee recently released draft language of a new version of NCLB that begins to make good on the Speaker's promise. Chairman George Miller's (D., Calif.) committee draft plan hasn't changed the law's name (yet), but it does propose fundamental policy changes.
The new plan eases up testing requirements, allows many public schools to escape real school-reform requirements, and further limits school-choice options for parents. The plan would gut the most conservative elements of NCLB. In their place, it offers the typical liberal remedies in education policy - new programs, more regulations, and, of course, big spending increases.
For Republican backers of NCLB, the draft language should come as a harsh wake-up call. After five years, the Bush administration's signature law has failed to accomplish what its supporters intended. The law's tough accountability requirements have forced states to focus on testing. But many states have lowered standards to make tests easier to pass, making public schools actually less accountable to parents for results. Only a slim percentage of eligible children trapped in failing schools have benefited from after-school tutoring or public school choice. The public-school establishment has once again proven adept at resisting structural reforms.
With liberals now turning the page to a new chapter in federal education policy, forward thinking conservatives should return to their long-held principles for education policy. It's a direction that should appeal to parents and taxpayers.
The first principle is restoring federalism. For example, conservatives on Capitol Hill - led by Senators Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) and John Cornyn (R., Tex.) - have proposed reforming NCLB to restore state and local control in education. Under their A-PLUS Act, states could choose to opt-out of No Child Left Behind and enter into a performance agreement with the federal government. The agreement would free participating states from most federal rules, regulations, and bureaucracy if they establish academic goals and maintain a transparent and consistent testing system to track student performance. This approach would ensure that public schools are accountable to parents and taxpayers for results, not federal bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.
The second principle is individual choice and personal responsibility. NCLB has not lived up to the promise of expanded school choice because it depends on the education establishment to implement it. Conservatives should empower parents more directly with the ability to give their children a quality education by looking to areas of federal policy outside of the Department of Education. One option would be to expand education savings accounts (ESAs) options. Federal law already offers families multiple tax-free savings options for K-12 and higher education. Strengthening ESA options for families could bring the forces of consumer choice and personal ownership to education in the same way that HSAs and IRAs are transforming health care and retirement policy.
Both of these reforms should appeal to parents and taxpayers concerned about the state of public education.
Restoring federalism in American education would have many common-sense benefits. Key decisions about education would be made by local stakeholders - closer to the parents and students affected. Funds currently spent on overhead costs, the federal bureaucracy, and regulatory compliance could instead be spent in the classroom. This approach would also pave the way for further advances for school choice, since the biggest victories for vouchers and charter schools have come at the state level.
Strengthening individual choice and ownership by expanding ESAs should also appeal to parents and taxpayers. Helping families save for college and pay for K-12 education services (such as, private school tuition, tutoring, summer school, or home education) will ensure that more children receive a quality education that prepares them to succeed in life.
Policymakers face a test in the upcoming No Child Left Behind reauthorization debate: Will they finally recognize the folly of trusting the federal government to improve America's schools and offer a bold alternative to the liberal, big government approach? Those hoping to pass this test would be wise to study the old conservative principles of limited government, federalism, and parental choice.
Dan Lips is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation and co-author of "The Oklahoma Scholarship Tax Credit: Giving Parents Choices, Saving Taxpayers Money," published by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.
First appeared in the National Review