By Dan Lips
Last week, President Bush signed legislation to rename the U.S. Department of Education building after President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which is still the basis of federal education policy today. As I wrote in December, this symbolic tribute sets the stage for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind by forcing Congress to rethink the federal role in education.
Four decades have passed since Johnson signed ESEA, and yet the important goal of that original legislation - ensuring that disadvantaged children in America receive a quality education - remains largely unfulfilled.
One might expect broad agreement that it's time to rethink the federal education strategy that has failed so decisively, but some congressional leaders prefer to press on down the same road that's been followed since 1965. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, chairmen of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, wrote that the there should be "No Retreat on School Reform."
No Child Left Behind, he wrote, "is a promise to do all we can so that every American child receives the high quality education he or she needs and deserves." He continued: "We may never achieve that lofty goal, but if we hope to keep America strong and just, prosperous and free, we can never stop trying." Kennedy pledged to champion the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind and push for significant funding increases for federal education programs.
Senator Kennedy should understand better than most the tragic history of federal education policy. After all, he has served in the Senate since 1963 and had an opportunity to influence the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and each of the following eight reauthorizations. This year's reauthorization could be the ninth time that Congress reenacts a system that just doesn't work.
Congress owes it to American students, parents, and taxpayers to question whether the unsuccessful strategies of the past four decades are any more likely to work today. Kennedy's proposed reforms are based on a failed model: that more federal spending and more federal solutions will improve public schools. But if the history of federal education policy has taught us anything, it's that the ability of the federal government to improve American education is very limited. While spending has increased dramatically over the past four decades, measures of student academic achievement show that little progress has been made in the classroom.
It is important to remember that the federal government provides only 8.5 percent of the funding for K-12 education but imposes far more than 8.5 percent of the rules and regulations governing America's schools. Congress has to take a new look at what the federal government is getting in return for this taxpayer investment.
Senators Jim DeMint and John Cornyn have proposed an alternative to the current approach in their "A PLUS Act." Their plan is premised on the belief that the federal government's 8.5 percent stake in American education should limit it to requiring two things: first, that states bring real transparency to public education through regular state-level testing and full reporting to the public; second, that states use federal funds to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged students.
Importantly, the DeMint-Cornyn plan would free states from much of the burden of the federal paperwork bureaucracy. States would be free to steer more funding to programs that actually make a difference in the classroom.
Senator Kennedy may insist on "No Retreat" in the march toward expansive federal education policy, but Congress and citizens really do need to question whether history should give us confidence that the federal government can fix the problems in America's schools in its ninth try reauthorizing the ESEA. Hasn't the time come for a new direction?