By Dan Lips and Evan Feinberg
Last week Republican Senators Judd Gregg (NH) and Richard Burr (NC) introduced the "No Child Left Behind Act of 2007" the first full reauthorization bill proposed in the 110th Congress. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings applauded the move. For conservatives hoping to restore federalism in education, however, the proposal offers little to celebrate.
First, the Gregg-Burr legislation would maintain the core provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), requiring states to conduct annual testing and to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" toward a 2014 deadline for all students to score "proficient" on state exams. The bill would allow states some leeway in testing, including letting them implement growth-model testing systems. Concerning English Learners who are new to the country, the bill allows schools more time for getting them up to grade-level and gives states extra credit for making them proficient in English. The bill would also permit states to create alternative assessments for special education students. A new provision requires states to establish and publish high school graduation rates.
Second, the Gregg-Burr proposal would strengthen the lever of federal power to push reforms on school systems across the country. The legislation would maintain and extend the federal government's role in establishing rules for teacher qualifications and hiring. The bill promotes merit pay for teachers, establishes new incentives for teachers to choose high-poverty schools, and gives school districts more authority to renegotiate collective bargaining agreements. These ideas are admirable, but they are not appropriate as federal policy proposals.
Third, the Gregg-Burr plan would provide school districts with financial incentives to implement reforms making Title I dollars portable so they would follow the child to a school of choice. The bill also would accelerate the process for students accessing after-school tutoring if they are stuck in low-performing schools.
Fourth, the Gregg-Burr plan would create some limited opportunities for flexibility in the use of federal funds. The legislation would empower the Secretary of Education to negotiate "Education Flexibility Partnerships" that would give states and local education agencies waivers from specific federal regulations and statutes. Unfortunately, this provision offers only a modest step forward for flexibility. It would leave all authority over these "partnerships" in the office of the Secretary, and it would not allow for any flexibility from NCLB's core testing and school reform components.
Some of these policy ideas, such as allowing Title I portability and offering limited flexibility, would improve existing NCLB law. But the Gregg-Burr proposal does little to address the fundamental flaw in NCLB - the expansion of the federal government's ineffective and inappropriate role in public education. Nor does the Gregg-Burr legislation address one of the worst consequences of NCLB implementation: the perverse incentives affecting state-level testing. Because NCLB requires states to show continual progress on state-level exams but allows states to decide how those tests are scored, it has created strong incentives for states to lower academic standards to show more students making the grade. Researchers have reported evidence that some states are already doing this, and the problem is likely to worsen as 2014 approaches.
The Gregg-Burr legislation does not limit federal bureaucracy, cut regulations, or fundamentally restore state and local control of education. While Congress provides just 8 percent of total education funding, states and local policymakers must increasingly bend to federal rules and regulations governing education. NCLB alone increased the annual paperwork burden for states and school districts by a staggering 7 million hours annually. Instead of chopping wasteful programs and bureaucracy, the Gregg-Burr plan piles on new requirements and federal powers.
NCLB has exposed the federal government's inability to direct successful school reforms for the country's 95,726 public schools. It is just the latest chapter in the failed history of federal education policy. Since 1965, the federal government has assumed ever greater responsibility for improving public education, yet long-term measures of student performance show no significant improvement since the early 1970s.
Rather than further consolidating power and responsibility in Washington, Congress must move in the opposite direction. American schools need more than federal Band-Aids on a broken policy. They need greater state and local autonomy, where decisions can be influenced by students, parents, teachers, and principals.
Dan Lips is Education Analyst and Evan Feinberg is Domestic Policy Research Assistant at the Heritage Foundation.