September 24, 2007 | Education Notebook on Education
By Dan Lips and Evan Feinberg
Now that school is back in session, here's a quick quiz for parents, teachers, and taxpayers: Who do you think should be in charge of making decisions governing public schools in your community - Congress or local officials and school leaders?
Leaders in Congress have an answer: They want Congress to assume the powers of a national school board.
In 2001, Congress passed No Child Left Behind, which gave the federal government powers previously left to state and local officials. Under NCLB, the federal government established rules for student testing, curricula, and teacher credentials.
Now Congress must decide whether to renew No Child Left Behind, and an early draft of the House Education and Labor Committee's plan for a revised law would actually increase Washington's control over local education.
The new plan would extend Washington's control over setting standards and testing, while creating more loopholes to benefit the education bureaucracy. The effect would be federal incentives to weaken state testing and accountability standards.
Another proposed change would step away from encouraging non-English speakers to learn English. The draft language would allow schools to administer native language assessments or use "portfolios" to measure whether non-English-speaking children were learning. This quick fix to make test scores look better could result in long-term problems if public schools don't tackle the important challenge of teaching English.
Washington would also have new powers to manage how teachers are paid. Rather than leaving decisions to school boards and principals, the draft legislation would create new "premium pay" programs to give bonuses to teachers and principals who perform certain tasks, such as mentoring other teachers.
The 1,036-page draft legislation is loaded with programs that would give federal bureaucrats more control over how local schools are run. For example, the plan would create new federal programs to encourage schools to implement "environmental education." Other new programs would train public school teachers to teach reading and math.
The draft bill's laundry lists of proposals read more like a school board agenda than legislation in the U.S. Congress.
Parents and taxpayers should question whether congressional micro-management is good for their children's public schools. Since 1965, Congress has tried to fix public education in America by giving Washington more power and spending more tax dollars on federal programs. Test scores over the long term show that the ever-expanding federal role has done little to improve student learning.
There is an alternative. Rather than acting as a national school board, Congress and the Department of Education could serve as a "chartering authority." In place of thousands of pages of prescriptive programs and regulations, they would outline basic requirements and broad goals for states and school districts and give local authorities the freedom and responsibility to meet these objectives. Senators Jim DeMint (R-SC) and John Cornyn (R-TX) have introduced legislation, known as "A-PLUS," based on this approach.
The A-PLUS plan is modeled on public charter school management. A school district awards a charter to a school when it agrees to certain goals and guidelines, but the school's management has broad authority to hire the right teachers, implement an effective curriculum, and create a healthy school environment for children to learn. A charter school continues on the basis of its ability to attract students and meet the terms of its performance agreement.
The DeMint-Cornyn plan would give states that same freedom. States would be required to follow basic guidelines, such as maintaining regular testing and continuing to use funding to help at-risk communities, but would be free to decide how to use their federal funding and to run their schools. State and local officials - not distant bureaucrats - would decide how children in local schools should be taught.
The House Education and Labor Committee may vote next week on the future of No Child Left Behind. If early signs are any indication, America could soon be one step closer to having a national school board.
Dan Lips is Education Analyst and Evan Feinberg is Research Assistant in Domestic Policy at the Heritage Foundation.