By Dan Lips
Earlier this year, conservatives on Capitol Hill introduced legislation to give states the opportunity to opt-out of No Child Left Behind. Now, a leading Republican in the House of Representatives is pushing a new plan to give states the maximum freedom within the current No Child Left Behind law.
Last week, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, (R-CA), the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor committee introduced the "State and Local Flexibility and Improvement Act," (H.R.2577) along with 8co-sponsors, including Minority Leader John Boehner, (R-OH).
Rep. McKeon's flexibility plan would be a dramatic improvement over existing law. However, it maintains No Child Left Behind's expanded role for the federal government in testing policy and, therefore, fails to address a central problem in federal education policy. In this sense, the McKeon plan - while an important step forward for programmatic flexibility - fails to address the expanded federal role at the core of No Child Left Behind.
Let's look at the details. The McKeon plan would allow states to enter into a 5-year performance agreement with the Secretary of Education. The agreement would empower state and local education officials with new discretion in crafting policy and spending federal funds. States would be free to waive certain regulatory requirements, streamline federal programs, and redirect funding toward state-run initiatives.
In addition, states could also enter into local flexibility contracts with local education agencies, meaning more discretion with federal funds at the local level as well. The McKeon bill would also allow states and local school systems to implement new and more efficient ways to deliver Title I dollars to high-poverty schools.
So what would this mean, in practice, for American students and schools? Under the McKeon plan, states and local policymakers - not Congress or bureaucrats in the Department of Education - would have greater say over how a state's share of federal education dollars are used to improve student learning. State leaders could end ineffective programs, reallocate funds toward state priorities, and reduce the amount of resources that are spent on paperwork and administrative costs-all of which would be a big improvement over existing policy.
Unfortunately, the McKeon bill leaves intact No Child Left Behind's expanded oversight of testing and accountability. States would be required to maintain NCLB's core accountability and testing provisions, including the federal goal that all students must reach "proficiency" on state tests by 2014. That provision has led to serious problems in state testing policies. Some states are avoiding federally mandated sanctions by simply changing grading procedures to artificially raise test scores. As 2014 approaches, this problem will likely worsen.
The McKeon bill would grant states some flexibility to implement growth-model testing systems (which track individual students' progress) within the NCLB framework. But that does not solve the problem of the "race to the bottom" in state-level testing.
The McKeon bill falls far short of what conservatives like Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Michigan, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, have proposed in the "Academic Partnerships Leads Us to Success" or "A PLUS" Acts.
These bills would allow states to entirely opt-out of No Child Left Behind. States would be granted control of federal funds for education free from federal rules and regulations. States could choose to assume oversight and direction of state-level testing and public reporting to maintain transparency about results. States no longer would be forced to rig state tests to federal goals, like universal proficiency by 2014.
Nevertheless, Rep. McKeon should be credited for pushing in the direction of strengthening state freedom and flexibility. It remains to be seen whether any of these ideas are incorporated in the next reauthorization. If history is any guide, conservative education reforms are often the first to go in the legislative process.
In 2001, the original No Child Left Behind legislation introduced in the House of Representatives, H.R. 1, included a section on performance agreements that was similar to the 2007 McKeon proposal. During the legislative debate, that section was watered down into a weak flexibility program that merely allows a portion of federal funds to be transferred between existing federal programs.
With Chairmen George Miller (D-CA) Edward Kennedy (D-MA) holding the gavel for upcoming committee proceedings on NCLB, it's tough to imagine any strong conservative reforms faring any better this year.
For better or worse, we may know soon. Sources on Capitol
Hill suggest that a No Child Left Behind bill may emerge from the
House Education and Labor committee as early as this month.
Dan Lips is Education Analyst at the Heritage Foundation, www.Heritage.org.