The Heritage Foundation

Executive Summary #1286es on Education

May 28, 1999

May 28, 1999 | Executive Summary on Education

Executive Summary: Accountability 101: Why the President's Education Proposals Won't Make the Grade

At the heart of the Administration's recently introduced Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization plan is a new program designed to boost accountability called the Education Accountability Act of 1999 (Title XI). Under this plan, to qualify for most ESEA funds, states would be required to (1) turn around low-performing schools; (2) end social promotion; (3) raise teacher quality; (4) implement a sound school discipline policy; and (5) issue report cards on schools. The Act's requirements also would apply to the recently expanded Education Flexibility Partnership Act (Ed-Flex), which offers states greater flexibility to administer some ESEA programs in exchange for meeting program goals.

The President has good reason to call for more accountability. Although the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 requires the U.S. Department of Education to provide annual performance indicators for each program, only three ESEA programs--Title I for disadvantaged children, the Eisenhower grant program, and the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities (SDFSC) Act--offer them. Their results are less than notable:

  • After 34 years and $120 billion spent on Title I--ESEA's key program--only 13 percent of low-income 4th graders score at or above the "proficient" level on national reading tests, compared with 40 percent of the higher-income students.

  • Despite spending $358 million per year to train teachers in math and science, America ranks 19th out of 21 industrialized countries in 12th grade mathematics achievement and last in 12th grade advanced physics.

  • The Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities program has spent $6 billion since its inception; but according to General Barry R. McCaffrey, the Clinton Administration's "drug czar," it simply "mails out checks."

The lack of correlation between federal programs and academic outcomes is disturbing. Thus, although the President's diagnosis of the problems facing schools and students today is accurate, the Administration's plan is the wrong remedy. It will complicate and retard treatment of these problems. Specifically, this plan:

  • Fails to set academic achievement as the goal of education reform. Other than enforcing the 1994 standards-based reforms attached to ESEA Title I funds, the Administration's plan does not mention raising student achievement as the goal of the new accountability measures.

  • Continues to fund school systems instead of students. Although it mentions school choice for students attending chronically failing schools, the extent of portability is limited to public schools even if state law allows state public funds to go to private providers.

  • Fails to reward states that boost academic achievement and treats states that simply complete the required paperwork the same as it treats those that actually do succeed in boosting academic achievement.

  • Circumvents state education reform efforts and encourages more bureaucratic oversight.

  • Forces states to accept accountability methods without giving them the fiscal and legal autonomy to solve their unique problems in the best way.

  • Offers no flexibility to consolidate all ESEA funds for the state's most urgent needs. If a state needs to focus on one goal, it could not use its share of ESEA funds to feed one key reform. States must continue using ESEA funds in the prescribed areas, regardless of need.

The experience of states that boast high academic results demonstrates that the best way to solve chronic academic failure is to offer states, localities, principals, teachers, and parents more fiscal and legal autonomy in exchange for clear academic results. In the case of federal programs, this would mean:

  • Giving states and localities more flexibility to consolidate and administer federal funds as they see fit in exchange for agreed-upon results;

  • Recognizing, showcasing, and rewarding states and localities that succeed in improving academic achievement; and

  • Applying strict sanctions to states and localities that fail, including the withdrawal of federal funds in the most egregious circumstances or the transfer of funds to parents to select a school of choice.

If it is serious about boosting accountability, Congress should use Title XI to encourage states or localities to enter into a binding agreement with the federal government that outlines how they plan to boost academic achievement. In exchange, the federal government should give the states maximum flexibility and fiscal and legal autonomy to meet their goals. Under this approach, known as "Straight A's," federal education dollars would shift from programs that feed inputs to ones that boost results.

The Administration's Education Accountability Act brings needed attention to many problems in the nation's schools, and its objectives are good. But its remedies miss the point and will not improve education for all children because they fail to establish academic achievement as the litmus test for effective reform.

The best way to assure results in education is by promoting accountability for academic performance, freeing the states from bureaucratic federal red tape, and giving the states the fiscal and legal autonomy to innovate in exchange for specific agreed-upon results. This cannot be achieved by mandating one-size-fits-all programs from Washington.

Nina Shokraii Rees is a former Education Policy Analyst and Jacqueline Curnutte is a former Research Assistant in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation.