The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly last week in favor of the principle of state and local control in education. The vote highlights an important education policy issue that will be at the heart of the debate on whether Congress should reauthorize No Child Left Behind.
On Tuesday, the House of Representatives was considering the "10,000 Teachers, 1 Million Minds Science and Scholarship Act," a proposal designed to use federal funding for education to improve math and science education in America's schools and encourage the hiring of thousands of new teachers. The act also would empower the director of the National Science Foundation to convene a panel of national experts in math and science education to develop curriculum recommendations that would be disseminated by federal agencies to local schools.
Representative Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) viewed this as opening the door to further federal involvement in local schools. "Education decisions are best determined at the local level by parents and school boards," Rep. Hoekstra explained. "The legislation as presented before the House would have taken us further in the opposite direction."
So Hoekstra, with support from Republican leadership, offered a motion to strike the curriculum provision and insert in its place new language: "Nothing in this act, or the amendments made by this act, shall be construed to limit the authority of state governments or local school boards to determine the curricula of their students."
The House of Representatives approved Hoekstra's motion almost unanimously, 408 to 4. The amended legislation then passed by a vote of 389 to 22.
The vote on Hoekstra's amendment showed the wide support among Members of Congress for the principle of local control of schools. The upcoming debate over No Child Left Behind's reauthorization will force Members to decide whether to apply this principle to the centerpiece of federal education policy.
Hoekstra, along with Senators Jim DeMint and John Cornyn, has offered legislation, the "Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act," or "A PLUS," that would put this principle into action by allowing state policymakers to reassert state and local control over education.
Under A PLUS, states would have the freedom to opt-out of the existing No Child Left Behind program and receive their share of funding free from the existing federal program requirements. In exchange for this freedom, states would continue regular state-level student testing and public reporting so that schools continue to focus on improving student achievement.
In short, the purpose of A PLUS is to shift authority in education back to those closer to students. It is premised on the idea that people who know local needs will understand best how resources should be allocated and what kind of testing strategies will help children advance. Many parents, schoolteachers, and principals have expressed frustration about the way that No Child Left Behind imposes a one-size-fits-all solution on each of the 90,000 public schools in the country. By allowing states to opt-out, A PLUS would give state and local leaders the chance to reassert authority over education decisions while maintaining the principle of focusing on results.
As Congress debates the future of No Child Left Behind, now is the time for local stakeholders to speak up for a new direction in education policy.
The nearly unanimous vote in favor of Rep. Hoekstra's motion shows that there is support for the idea of protecting state and local control over education on Capitol Hill. But Congress will only apply that principle more broadly to No Child Left Behind if local leaders demand the opportunity to take back control of their schools.
Dan Lips is Education Analyst at the Heritage Foundation, www.Heritage.org.