Conservatives on Capitol Hill have openly rebelled against
President Bush's signature education initiative. Last week, they
unveiled legislation that would let states opt out of many
requirements of No Child Left Behind in order to pursue
alternative, performance-based education strategies.
The revolt started brewing in early January, when Senators John
Cornyn (R.-Tex.) and Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.), two of Bush's biggest
supporters, publicly dissected problems arising from the No Child
Left Behind Act at the Heritage Foundation. Last week, the senators
teamed with Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R.-Mich.) to introduce legislation
known as A-PLUS (the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success)
The trio has already rounded up more than 50 House co-sponsors of
the bill, including two members of the GOP leadership: Minority
Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (Va.). In
the Senate, Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) has
signed on, along with Sen. Sam Brownback (R.-Kan.), a 2008
presidential candidate, and Sen. Mel Martinez (R.-Fla.), who serves
as general chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The legislation challenges the "unworkable status quo of No Child
Left Behind," said a spokesman for DeMint, who believes the
five-year-old education law is a "one-size-fits-all federal
approach" that often hampers, rather than assists, local school
districts. The underlying goal of A-PLUS is to reduce the federal
government's role in education and eliminate the bureaucracy
resulting from No Child Left Behind.
When No Child Left Behind was signed into law five years ago, an
overwhelming majority in Congress hailed the measure. But
conservative members remained silent. They were concerned that the
President's original proposal, which focused on local control of
schools, had morphed into something entirely different after making
its way through the congressional sausage machine.
Now five years old, the No Child Left Behind Act is once again
center stage in Congress. Last week, Sen. Teddy Kennedy (D.-Mass.)
and Rep. George Miller (D.-Calif.) hosted a joint hearing on
reauthorizing the law.
Liberals such as Kennedy and Miller urge spending more federal
money on education -- despite the fact that federal spending has
risen an unprecedented 25% under NCLB. Hearing frustration back
home from parents and teachers, conservatives know that throwing
even more money at the problem wouldn't solve anything.
In his Heritage Foundation speech, DeMint said the A-PLUS bill
would offer states greater flexibility in meeting the bureaucratic
requirements of No Child Left Behind. He compared it to the
approach used successfully with welfare reform -- letting states
serve as laboratories of change.
"No Child Left Behind started with some good ideas, but what
Congress didn't mess up, the bureaucracy has messed up," DeMint
said. "There is so much absurdity now within No Child Left Behind
that it's going to be difficult to tweak it and fix it. We need to
look at a way to allow states to get out of it in a way that would
let them do it responsibly."
Conservatives see the bill as an opportunity to establish
clear-cut priorities that return more power to local schools and
reduce Washington's involvement in education.
Given the weakened political position of conservatives, it might
not appear that A-PLUS has much of a chance. But five years of No
Child Left Behind has left even the law's former supporters
apprehensive about reauthorizing it in its present form -- much
less plowing even greater sums into the program "as is."
Consider Blunt, who in 2001 was one of the most prominent
supporters of No Child Left Behind. Today, he has buyer's remorse.
In running for his leadership post last November, Blunt called it
the one vote he wished he could have back.
"Now my view is that any time you can solve the problem closer to
where the problem is, you're going to have a better solution,"
Blunt said. "Particularly with elementary and secondary education,
the focus ought to be on moms and dads and local school districts
if kids are in public school, not on Washington, D.C., or even in
state capitals. You need to be always looking as to how you have
those decisions closer to home."
Blunt's sentiments are shared not only by members of Congress, but
also by parents and teachers across America who, after five years
of No Child Left Behind, yearn for greater flexibility and less
is Director of the Center for Media & Public Policy at The