The full Senate will soon consider the reauthorization of the 35-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This law, enacted under President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his Great Society initiative, was intended primarily to narrow the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their more prosperous classmates. During the past quarter century, however, its scope has broadened considerably and its focus has blurred. In addition, despite total spending of more than $125 billion, results are dismal: Poor students still lag behind their peers by an average of 20 percentage points on national achievement tests.
The Clinton Administration's ESEA reauthorization plan urges Congress to "stay the course." Despite calls for more accountability, the President and his allies have not been able to shake off the weary but heavy hands of the education establishment, which is content with the status quo.
Congress has done slightly better. Two significant amendments, recently approved (by close votes) in the Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, would break important ground to change this record by offering states significant new options: Title I portability and "Straight A's" (Academic Achievement for All) accountability.
Under Title I portability, 10 states and 20 school districts in other states would have the option of strapping Title I dollars to the backs of low-income students, allowing them to carry that money to a better performing public school, a private tutoring service, or an after-school program of choice. Under the HELP-approved Straight A's plan, 15 states and an unlimited number of school districts would gain the freedom to spend federal dollars on the reforms of their choice so long as they guaranteed that they would boost the academic achievement of all their students, especially low-income youngsters.
It is important to note that neither of these "improvements" will change the basic structure of ESEA, which funds over 60 programs. Together, however, the changes do offer some reform-minded governors and local leaders the option to transform K-12 programs so that they can benefit disadvantaged students more effectively. Moreover, the reauthorization process offers the Senate a real opportunity to include provisions laying the foundation for innovative reforms, such as giving all states the flexibility and the incentive to boost educational achievement. Like the changes that enabled states to innovate and improve the welfare system, these reforms represent an historic opportunity that should not be missed.
Make Title I a child-centered program.
The committee bill currently allows only a limited number of interested states to attach Title I funding to poor students. Instead of making portability a state option, the Senate should make it a nationwide educational right for disadvantaged students, akin to the Pell Grant program. All poor children should be entitled to take their share of federal dollars to the school or program of their choice (within the limits of state constitutions and laws).
Allow all states to participate in Straight A's.
The committee-approved bill allows only 15 states to apply for this flexibility. All states should have the option of boldly slashing federal restrictions in return for guaranteed gains in student achievement.
Eliminate duplicative programs in ESEA and focus the law on a few key national goals.
Since the HELP Committee failed to make substantive changes in the ESEA's underlying structure, Congress should restructure these programs to emphasize key national objectives. Legislation has been introduced by Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and Evan Bayh (D-IN) to accomplish this, but their measure merely consolidates and streamlines many programs, leaving numerous strings in place while adding red tape. A better approach would be to craft a refined (and deregulated) version of this plan.
In the end, the goal should be an ESEA plan that respects state and local rights but also empowers parents--especially low-income parents--and is based on real accountability for academic results. The plan now before the Senate takes a few small steps in this direction. Long strides are needed.
Nina Shokraii Rees is a former Senior Policy Analyst in Education, and Jennifer Garrett is a Research Assistant in Domestic Policy Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.