September 11, 2008

September 11, 2008 | Commentary on Education

7-Year Itch: GOP and No Child Left Behind.

It was always an awkward marriage. But it appears that after seven years together, the Republican party is preparing to leave behind No Child Left Behind.

At the GOP's convention in St. Paul, there was little mention of the administration's signature initiative. The new party platform doesn't reference NCLB and instead includes a new section - "reviewing the federal role in elementary and secondary education" - signaling that Republicans intend to return to conservative principles. The platform calls for giving federal education funds to the states as simple block grants, so long as states conduct testing and make the results public.

This is a significant change from current policy - which was itself a departure from conservatives' traditional distrust of Washington's involvement in a fundamentally local issue. NCLB was based on the idea that the federal government's nine-percent stake in public-education funding could be leveraged to drive significant reform. But experience is showing again the limits (and potential dangers) of what Washington can do.

Even the bill's most conservative elements have proven to be a disappointment. Too few children have benefited from the law's very modest school-choice provisions. And while the law has rightly focused national attention on public-school performance, its combination of lofty goals and penalties for missing testing benchmarks has encouraged states to weaken their standards to make tests easier to pass. Left unfixed, this problem could erode the gains that have been made in making public education more transparent.

NCLB has succeeded in one area, though: expanding federal power. Federal spending on K-12 education has increased by 41 percent since 2001. The Department of Education has been granted new powers to micromanage how states and localities run their schools. The cost of bureaucratic compliance has increased - resulting in more education dollars spent on administration than in the classroom. In all, NCLB increased the regulatory burden on state and local governments by 6.7 million hours annually - approximately $140 million.

Last year, conservatives on Capitol Hill pushed an overhaul of NCLB based on a block-grant strategy that Republicans favored in the 1990s. The A-PLUS Acts, sponsored by Sens. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) and John Cornyn (R., Tex.), and Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R., Mich.), would have allowed states to opt out of NCLB and receive federal funding free from NCLB regulations as long as they maintained state-level testing and public reporting. These bills never made it to a vote, but their impact can be seen in the new platform and conservatives' newfound willingness to question federal power in education.

Of course, the direction of Republican thinking on education may largely depend on John McCain. The Arizona senator hasn't signed onto the A-PLUS Act, and continues to laud the No Child Left Behind's goals on the campaign trail. But his plans for education have left room for a significant overhaul of existing law.

For McCain, expanding parental choice appears to be his top priority for education. One promising approach would be to combine conservatives' strategy for granting states more authority with a reform geared to expanding school choice. Congress could offer states the freedom to opt out of federal requirements under NCLB if they choose to redirect their funding into a revised Title I funding system that allows for "backpack funding" - that is, federal funding following a child directly to the school of his or her parents' choice.

Under such a plan, states could end ineffective federal programs and avoid regulations if they simply let federal funding follow low-income students and allow widespread public-school choice. States could include private school in the range of choices, too. Like the A-PLUS Acts, states could still be required to hold schools accountable for results by setting standards, testing students annually, and reporting results to the public.

A "backpack funding" system would pave the way for other promising education reforms at the state and local level. Since school leaders would be given greater autonomy over the federal funding brought to their school, more resources could make it into actual classrooms. Facing new competition to attract students, schools could implement other promising strategies, such as performance pay for teachers. Public-school leaders would be granted more freedom to innovate and create successful learning models to attract students.

This reform strategy could appeal to reform-minded liberals, too. While Democrats on Capitol Hill have been pushing plans to further expand Washington's power in education, Democratic leaders in San Francisco, New York City and elsewhere have implemented reforms designed to have education dollars follow children to their public school. Giving more power to principals and the nation's most disadvantaged students should attract some bipartisan support.

The time has come to abandon the big-government approach in education. Transferring power from Washington to parents and local leaders would be a welcome change after No Child Left Behind.

Dan Lips is a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Dan Lips Senior Policy Analyst
Domestic Policy Studies

Related Issues: Education

First appeared in the National Review