The Heritage Foundation

Executive Memorandum #655 on Education

February 29, 2000

February 29, 2000 | Executive Memorandum on Education

The NGA's Phony Education Reform Plan

The Senate will soon start debating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This law, signed in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, is the cornerstone of the federal involvement in K-12 education. Given the ESEA's poor track record, its re-authorization offers Congress the perfect opportunity to do to education what it did to welfare just a few years ago: end years of perverse incentives and focus federal dollars strictly on results.

A bill to do this, known as Straight A's, has passed the House, but now the National Governors' Association (NGA) has offered a "compromise" plan that would sink both Straight A's and all hope for real change. It would limit the power of states to innovate at the expense of the poor children who need bold reform the most. Moreover, in the words of Florida Governor Jeb Bush, it "would result in a continuation of federal policies and programs that are inflexible and rigid, and do not provide states and local districts the ability to use resources to support strong accountability systems."

The ESEA needs reform. After 35 years and $120 billion spent on Title I--aid to disadvantaged students and the largest ESEA program--only 13 percent of low-income 4th graders score at or above the "proficient" level on national reading tests. Even worse, no progress has been made toward achieving the program's fundamental goal: narrowing the achievement gap between low-income and upper-income students.

Congress has an opportunity to free states from federal red tape in exchange for boosting student test scores, but only one proposal--the Academic Achievement for All Act, or Straight A's--has come close to meeting this goal. Straight A's would leave the basic structure of ESEA intact but allow interested states or school districts to spend their share of federal dollars on the reforms of their choice--in exchange for agreed-upon academic results.

If a state or school district decided to participate in Straight A's, it would select the formula-based K-12 programs it wished to commingle. It would have to outline in a contract agreement how it planned to spend the money and by how much it hoped to increase test results and decrease the achievement gap between rich and poor students. Next, it would send the U.S. Secretary of Education baseline data on the present academic condition of its students.

The federal government then would send the state one check and agree that, in exchange, it must produce the results it promised to achieve in the contract. If the state achieved these results, the
federal government would provide a bonus. If it failed, the state's new flexibility would be withdrawn. Under egregious circumstances, states or localities would suffer financial sanctions. In short, states would have incentives to focus all their energies on boosting grades.

The House of Representative passed Straight A's as part of its ESEA package in the form of a pilot for 10 states and an unlimited number of school districts. But the base ESEA bill being considered by the Senate Education Committee does not contain Straight A's. Instead, the Senate is considering a so-called compromise version endorsed by the NGA, called "performance partnerships." This is a poison pill because these "partnerships" would:

  • Remove the flexibility for states to use Title I funds on the reform of their choice.
    Title I comprises three-fourths of the entire ESEA budget and the majority of the bureaucratic strings. Traditionally, the focus has been on making sure that federal dollars reach poor school districts. Straight A's would remove the strings from Title I so long as states could show they were boosting the academic achievement of poor students. By keeping the rigid strings on Title I intact, the NGA plan would seriously limit a state's ability to use federal funding to implement systemic reform. Districts would not be able to use federal funding on some of the most promising reform mechanisms for disadvantaged students, such as starting new charter schools or investing in a solid teacher training program. As Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan has said, "Without allowing states to include Title I in a Straight A's proposal, states can only dabble around the edges when it comes to implementing meaningful reform."

  • Restrict the freedom of states by increasing the Secretary of Education's role in defining, maintaining, and concluding a state's charter agreement with Washington.
    This would give the Secretary of Education and Washington unprecedented power in an area that traditionally has been the responsibility of the states and localities. Empowering Washington bureaucrats to monitor state efforts to reform schools is akin to placing the fox in charge of the henhouse. It will discourage any innovative state from applying for the "flexibility" in the bill.

  • Limit flexibility while augmenting accountability.
    The purpose of Straight A's is to refocus federal education policymaking from inputs to programs designed to boost results. That is how welfare reform and the current charter school laws have blossomed. With welfare, states were given control over their share of federal dollars and held responsible for reducing dependence. States with strong charter school laws fully entrust their charter school principals with the day-to-day operation of their school and simply hold them accountable for results. Straight A's must be allowed to work the same way.

The NGA's proposals would do nothing to encourage real innovation and would hold back those states wishing to use freedom from red tape to acquire real results. The House-passed Straight A's Act is the first federal proposal that would challenge states and locals to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students. If a state is bold enough to want to sign a contract with Washington promising to focus all its energy on raising the test scores of its students, it should be allowed to do so. The NGA proposal would destroy any prospect of this happening.

Nina Shokraii Rees is a former Senior Education Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

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