February 20, 2007
By The Honorable John Cornyn and Jim DeMint
Delivered on January 8, 2007
Michael Franc: Today marks the fifth anniversary of
the signing of the No Child Left Behind law. The law started out
with a different intent in the legislative process than it
ended up with on that day five years ago.
The following quote is from something that President Bush
said in 2000 when he was running for President: "I do not want
to be the national principal," Bush said. "I believe in local
control of schools." And indeed, if you look at the first blueprint
of his education reform plan that came to Capitol Hill within
weeks of his inauguration, it actually had a lot of those elements
in it. There was a lot of local control; there was an option for
states to have a lot more flexibility and school choice.
But something happened on the way to that Rose Garden signing
ceremony: Some liberals in Congress who became part of the
negotiating process found ways to have the choice provisions to
give parents options-both private and religious schools, as well as
public-with some of the federal money fall to the floor. In their
place there were some very minor choice provisions and very minor
accountability provisions that to this day have not worked very
For example, there are 3.9 million students in schools eligible
for limited public school choice, but because of roadblocks and
bureaucratic hurdles put up by the schools, fewer than 1 percent of
those children have actually managed to get those services.
The regulatory burden has gone up in the absence of all these
choice revisions, and one study by the Office of Management and
Budget in the White House found that the No Child Left Behind law
has added an additional 6.7 million hours of paperwork,
recordkeeping, and reporting requirements for state and local
So here we are today, five years later, and Congress is
getting ready to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law. We have
on today's panel two very prominent, very distinguished Senators
who will offer up an alternative. The alternative, as we have been
calling it here at Heritage, is the charter state option.
Our first speaker will be Senator John Cornyn from Texas, who
was elected to the Senate in 2002 and, as I understand, is the only
first-term Senator in recent memory to be elected to the Republican
Senate leadership team. He believes in low taxes, limited
government, the power of individuals, and individual choice and
opportunity. He serves on the Budget, Judiciary, Armed Services,
and Ethics committees. We look forward to hearing his comments
on this, especially given his role in Texas, where the Texas
reforms were the inspiration for a lot of the ideas you will hear
Our second speaker, Senator Jim DeMint from South Carolina, was
elected in 2004. He served in the House of Representatives from
1998 until 2004, and he has been the author of a lot of major bills
that we've commented on here at Heritage, relating to Social
Security, patient-directed health care, a tax reform commission,
and welfare reform. He serves on the following committees: Foreign
Relations, Energy and Natural Resources, Commerce, and the
Joint Economic Committee.
Michael Franc is Vice
President for Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.
THE HONORABLE JOHN CORNYN: A federal, as opposed to
national, government was deemed by our founding fathers to be more
conducive to individual liberty and yet would allow the new nation
the essential powers it needed to govern itself. What better way to
secure individual rights than to divide political power between the
executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal
government, and between the state and local governments as
well. Even before a Bill of Rights was actually embraced by the
founding generation, it was this system of checks and balances and
divided powers upon which the Framers relied for the
protection of individual liberties.
Then, of course, there was the added practical benefit, because
as a commonsense notion, government that is closest to the
people is far more likely to be responsive to the people's needs
and desires. Thomas Jefferson put it this way:
The way to have safe government is not to trust it all to the
one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to everyone
exactly the functions in which he is competent…by placing
under everyone what his own eye may superintend, that all will be
done for the best.
I am delighted to be here at The Heritage Foundation once
again. Let me publicly acknowledge Jim DeMint's leadership in this
important issue, and particularly on the Academic Partnerships Lead
Us to Success, or A-PLUS, Act of 2007, which we are talking about
today. Jim, I'm very proud to be working with you on this
Today, as Michael said, we mark the fifth anniversary of
the No Child Left Behind Act. It is appropriate once again to
focus on the issue of true educational reform, true to our
founders' vision. That means moving the decision-making power out
of Washington and closer to parents and teachers. It also means
cutting the red tape and bureaucracy that, kudzu-like, seems to
ensnarl the best of intentions by central planners. We must
liberate parents and teachers in each of our states to achieve
superior educational results while at the same time
eliminating the regulatory burden that invariably attends
For more than 40 years, Washington, D.C., has been sending money
to the states through hundreds of Washington-based education
programs. In the past five years alone, spending in K-12 out of
Washington has risen an unprecedented 25 percent.
And yet America continues to fall behind, both competitively and
academically, in our global economy and compared to other public
education systems around the world. This is not an indictment
of our colleges and universities, which rate among the finest and
most sought-after in the world; rather, it is our K-12 education
system that all too often fails our children and risks
consigning the next generation and beyond a diminished
standard of living.
Consider the implications of this single statistic: China
graduates four times as many engineers as we do, and within a few
years, approximately 90 percent of all scientists and engineers in
the world will live in Asia. We all know that countries that can
educate and train the best and brightest have an advantage over
other countries. In America, surely every child deserves the
advantage achieved by a first-class education, which brings us here
Too often, what passes for educational reform results in
mandated bureaucracy in education, thus creating a spider's web of
federal regulations with which the states are required to contend.
In Florida alone, former Governor Jeb Bush has observed, "Though
the federal contribution to education in Florida is small-only
about seven percent of total educational spending-it takes more
than 40 percent of the state's education staff to oversee and
administer federal dollars." In fact, he estimates that the
federal regulatory requirements are so onerous that six times as
many people are required to administer a federal education dollar
as are required to administer a state dollar. "Imagine," he
said, "what our states could do if we could spend more of our time
and energy working to improve student achievement, rather than
tediously complying with a dizzying array of federal
By allowing the states the flexibility and freedom to
establish their own guidelines, we open the door to greater
innovation and creativity in educating the 50 million children in
our public school system. It will allow the states to choose the
programs that best serve their students' needs, and it will empower
parents and teachers with greater influence in what happens in
classrooms across America every day.
The A-PLUS Act of 2007 will revitalize our education system
in America by wisely applying the lessons of federalism, this
time in an education context. In other words, this legislation
intends to take the emphasis off process and place it where it
belongs: on educational results.
My home state of Texas provides a good example of what the
well-intended ideas of No Child Left Behind have resulted in:
burgeoning bureaucracy and overlays on our state system. Texas-and
this should come as no surprise, given our President's passion for
education-became one of the first states to establish a
standards-based system under then-Governor George W. Bush. So,
before No Child Left Behind, Texas already had a strong
accountability system. After No Child Left Behind passed, we're now
requiring teachers and administrators in Texas to implement an
entirely new set of regulations on top of their already successful
state-mandated system. That's just one example.
Since its involvement began in K-12 education, the federal
government has consistently mandated larger and more intricate
bureaucracy in education. Of course, this is likely not what was
intended, but if you think about it, increased bureaucracy and red
tape are an inherent part of the package whenever Washington
is in control rather than local folks-including parents. Now, on
this fifth anniversary of No Child Left Behind, it is time to
restore to the states the freedom and responsibility to achieve
desired results without the Washington-mandated baggage of the
status quo. That is where the responsibility belongs.
THE HONORABLE JIM DEMINT: I always feel a little freer
when I'm at The Heritage Foundation. That's really what I want to
talk about-freedom itself-because that's how we have to look at
education and how it fits into the big picture of our
country: how essential it is to everything else we believe in
as a nation.
Freedom has external and internal components. We're very aware
of the external components: of political freedom that comes with
democracy, the economic freedom that comes with free enterprise and
capitalism, tolerance of religion, our legal structure that
recognizes and enforces contracts, and law enforcement. These
things are critical to making freedom work.
But underneath all of that, the foundation is the individual:
the individual who has the character and the capabilities to
operate successfully and responsibly within that external
environment that we set up. As we try to spread democracy around
the world, we see the need for that individual and those
capabilities, and how none of it works unless that individual
is prepared to operate in that free society.
So, given the importance of our belief in freedom, the
commitment as a nation to develop those capabilities in the
individual is a good thing. The commitment for an educated
public is a good thing.
But that does not necessarily mean that we are committed
to government-run and politically managed schools,
particularly from the federal level, and I'm afraid that over the
past several decades, our commitment has moved from developing the
capabilities of the individual to a commitment toward government
control of education at the federal level. When you talk about
pulling that apart-as Senator Cornyn has talked about, moving
toward a federalist approach-people say you are against public
education because you are taking away some federal control.
If you look at the facts-and John has mentioned a lot of
them-for over 40 years, the government has been involved in sending
money. You can almost peg the beginning of the decline in our
education system to when the federal government began to
support it. We're losing ground to other countries, and we have
been for a long time. We're spending now, if you add capital costs
in just about every state, well over $10,000 per student, and we
continue to lose ground. It's affecting the college level as
well, because our universities are having to "dumb down" to receive
what's coming out of our public education system.
The research I've just read says that the average college
graduate today knows what the average high school graduate did 50
years ago. Can you imagine that? So we've got a high school
equivalency now at the college level. You can trace it all back to
federal involvement. The way I see it, as someone who used to be
not only in research, but in quality development in consulting
companies for years, you can't have quality development with a
top-down approach, particularly if decisions are made at
multiple levels as we have with education at the local, state,
and federal levels. At every level, the interest now is not in
developing the individual, but in controlling the process.
We are at the point where I was a number of times with some of
my clients: where, after doing a complete assessment of their
business, I told them, "It is time to do something
different." It is time to change the way we are thinking about
this, because it's not working.
The need is more urgent than it ever has been. If our high
school and college graduates were just competing with themselves,
then we could say at least they're all even, but they're not now.
People all over the world want what we have, and they want to take
it from us. They want our prosperity; they want our success; they
want our freedom; and their students-if you talk to people
who've come back from all parts of the world, particularly Asia and
China and India-are working to take what we've got while our
students continue to decline every year because we've lost scope of
what the real mission is, and that is to develop the character
and the capability of the individual.
As has already been pointed out, No Child Left Behind started
with some good ideas, but what Congress didn't mess up, the
bureaucracy has messed up. 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.
What has happened in No Child Left Behind is what every manager
and leader dreads: to be given more responsibility and more
accountability with less flexibility and authority to get it done.
That's what has happened all over. A principal, a
superintendent, a state does not have the flexibility and
authority to do what we've asked them to do.
We can change that without lowering any standards, without
lowering any accountability. Probably the best way to describe
it is a charter state option. For those of you who have followed
the charter school movement across the country, it's a public
school idea where you allow people to set up a specialized school
with a separate board with some autonomy. They have the same
accountability, but they can use ingenuity, innovativeness,
and new ideas to try to do something better. Most of the good
performance is coming out of some form of specialization within the
public school umbrella at this point.
What we're asking is that states have the option to stay under
the No Child Left Behind regime or choose to take the
accountability and standards of that regimen but have the
flexibility to accomplish the goals in a different way. This would
do what welfare reform did. If you remember, welfare reform
did not start at the federal level, but by giving states the
flexibility to create laboratories for change. Then the federal
government saw what was working, and we did some things to allow
more states to do that, and we changed the system.
We need to do that for education, because, first of all, what
we're doing is not working. I think we've made the point today that
it is urgent-much more so than just a single federal program.
Everything we value as Americans is sitting on top of our ability
to develop the capabilities of our students better than the rest of
the world. It's not a one-year or a two-year fluke; it is decades
of trends where we are losing ground to other nations, and
we've got to stop it. The way we do it is to allow states the
flexibility to create different models so they can compete, so
other states get jealous and develop their own systems, and we
get something working that we have seen work before.
So we are proposing-and with Heritage's help and help from
governors all over the country, many of which have supported this
idea before-to include in the No Child Left Behind reauthorization
the key component of a charter state option, an option for states
to take the accountability and everything we believe that is right
about that but have the flexibility to fulfill it in a way that
There is an urgent need. This country cannot afford to fail
another generation of students. We have the opportunity to change
it, and I think we could change it relatively quickly if we give
states the opportunity to be creative.
The A-PLUS Act of 2007 would restore federalism to public educationby allowing states flexibility in spending their federal educationdollars while still requiring an accountability system to provideparents and taxpayers necessary information. The states should havethe option to stay under the No Child Left Behind regime oraccomplish the same goals in a different way.
The Honorable John Cornyn
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