January 8, 2007
Five years ago, President Bush signed into law No Child Left Behind. As a new Congress prepares to debate the law's future, the White House is working to build support for renewing it without any serious reforms. Last week, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings remarked that she was looking only at proposals to "perfect or tweak" it.
But the Bush administration's satisfaction with No Child Left Behind is surprising because the President's original education agenda was very different from today's law. President Bush once advocated limiting federal power in education. During the 2000 campaign, he pledged that he did not want to be "federal superintendent of schools" or the "national principal." He promised not to "tinker with the machinery of the federal role in education" but to "redefine that role entirely."
After entering the White House, Bush unveiled the original No Child Left Behind plan. One of this plan's main pillars was to give states and school districts control in exchange for strict accountability. "The federal government must be wise enough to give states and school districts more authority and freedom," the White House explained. "And it must be strong enough to require proven performance in return."
The president proposed a "charter state" option for "state and districts committed to accountability and reform." This would have allowed participating states and districts to enter into five-year agreements with the Secretary of Education to free them from federal mandates while still requiring public school to be transparent about results through student testing and extensive public reporting.
Yet Congress scrapped much of President Bush's original plan. The 1,100-page bill that emerged established new federal requirements and boosted funding for elementary and secondary education programs by approximately 26 percent. All that remained of the "charter state" option was a small provision to grant states and school districts limited flexibility in transferring funds between existing federal programs. Little was done to cut wasteful programs or streamline the expensive education bureaucracy.
The federal government still provides only 8.5 percent of education funding. No Child Left Behind, however, gave the Department of Education great powers to exert control over local schools. Policies once left to local leaders, concerning student testing and teacher qualifications, are now set by the federal government.
This new federal power comes at a large cost to local school districts, beyond the loss of control. According to the Office of Management and Budget, No Child Left Behind costs state and local communities an additional 6,688,814 hours, or $140 million, to fill out paperwork and ensure compliance. Thousands of state and local workers across the country spend their days on this task, instead of teaching students or otherwise contributing to their education.
The increase in federal power has led states and school districts to question whether the federal government's funding for education is worth the cost of submitting to federal mandates. Many state legislatures have debated resolutions criticizing No Child Left Behind. Some states, like Utah, have even come close to opting out of the program altogether. But doing so would cost the state millions in federal funding, and taxpayers sending their money to Washington expect to get some of it back for education.
The Bush administration has responded to state and local revolts with waivers and some flexibility, on a case-by-case basis. But getting a waiver is a tug-of-war match between the Department of Education and local leaders, and they do little, anyway, to empower state and local education officials to take real control over education decision-making.
In 2007, Democrats and Republicans alike should recognize the benefits of state and local control in education. Letting states enter into a "charter agreement" with the federal government for greater freedom and flexibility would spur progress in education. State leaders and local school leaders, not federal bureaucrats, would be responsible for improving student learning. And communities across the country would experiment with different policies, share results, and learn which solutions work best -- from school choice to higher teacher pay.
The 110th Congress has the opportunity to set a new course for American education. Restoring state and local control should be its destination.