By Dan Lips and Evan Feinberg
As Congress prepares to debate No Child Left Behind's reauthorization, conservatives and liberals alike are calling for greater state and local control of schools. Whether they join together in a common legislative initiative could shape the outcome of the reauthorization debate and the future of American education.
Among Democrats, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) is leading the charge to restore state and local control in education. Last month, Feingold wrote to the Washington Post in response to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings' column "A National Test We Don't Need."
While agreeing with the Secretary's critique of national testing, Feingold pushed her to go even further: "Ms. Spellings was right that states and localities are the ones that design the curriculum and pay most of the education bills…. She was also correct that states and local school districts have historically had the primary leadership role in public education. That's why it's so hard to understand why she keeps promoting the No Child Left Behind law's top-down approach to education."
Feingold elaborated in a follow-up letter to Spellings that was signed by five of his fellow Democratic Senators (Pat Leahy of Vermont, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Clair McCaskill of Missouri, and Maria Cantwell of Washington). Their letter is worth quoting at length:
Unfortunately, the Administration's proposal for NCLB reauthorization released earlier this year did not embrace enough of the themes you recently expressed in your op-ed….
While the Department does support some flexibility, such as allowing states to implement growth models, the Administration's proposal does not go far enough in promoting state and local flexibility.
As Congress prepares to consider reauthorization of NCLB, we should pay particular attention to your words, "Neighborhood schools deserve neighborhood leadership, not dictates from bureaucrats thousands of miles away." We encourage the Administration to work with Congress to ensure that a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act returns the decision-making power regarding testing systems and school interventions to teachers, principles, school administrators, and state education officials, as they are the professionals closest to our schools and best equipped to make these decisions.
Liberals and conservatives are embracing greater state and local control for different reasons. No Child Left Behind's limited school choice provisions, he explains in his letter, are a main reason he opposes the law's top-down approach. Conservatives, meanwhile, have long resisted the idea that Washington should be dictating education policies.
In response to the workings of the current No Child Left Behind law, both liberals and conservatives seem to agree on the basic idea that decisions affecting America's schools should be made at the state and local levels. Could they join together in supporting a policy that would achieve this result?
In March, Senators Jim DeMint (R-SC) and John Cornyn (R-TX) proposed the "Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success," or "A-PLUS," Act, which would give states the opportunity to enter into performance agreements with the Department of Education. Under A-PLUS, state officials could use federal funding to improve student learning, free from the federal bureaucracy's burdensome rules and regulations. States would have to maintain state-level testing and report information about students' and schools' performance to parents and the public, but state officials, working with education leaders, could decide what testing policies work for their schools, without ongoing federal direction.
A-PLUS is not a partisan or ideological approach. It would give state legislators, governors, and education leaders control over how to reform public schools to improve student achievement in their state.
Some states and local communities would embrace conservative education reform ideas like greater parental choice, expanded charter school options, and merit pay for teachers. Other states would choose reforms favored by liberals, like reducing class sizes and hiking teacher pay. Crucially, these decisions will be made by policymakers who are close to the students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers affected by their decisions, not by Congress and the distant bureaucracy of Washington, D.C.
So far, only conservatives have signed onto A-PLUS, but, as Senator Feingold's letter shows, support for the principle that public schools should be governed by local authorities crosses party lines.
If liberals and conservatives team up to support policies that shift education authority to the state and local levels, they could push the Bush Administration and Democratic leaders in Congress to fundamentally reform No Child Left Behind. That would be good news for parents and taxpayers who want state and local officials to take charge of their local schools.
Dan Lips is Education Analyst and Evan Feinberg is Domestic Policy Research Assistant at the Heritage Foundation, www.Heritage.org.