The Heritage Foundation

Backgrounder #1434 on Education

April 23, 2001

April 23, 2001 | Backgrounder on Education

B+ for H.R. 1's Education Reforms

The Leave No Child Behind Act of 2001 (H.R. 1), soon to be considered by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, includes many of President George W. Bush's education reform proposals. Unlike other education legislation now before Congress, H.R. 1 includes more measures to promote academic excellence, accountability, flexibility, and new opportunities for children left behind by the current system. As is often the case, however, extensive reforms such as these that promise to boost achievement face major opposition from special-interest groups. The temptation to weaken H.R.1 instead of strengthening it to improve its potential could grow during the negotiation, amendment, and reconciliation process.

As the bleak results of the just-released 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading show,1 a new approach to educating America's children is needed. Despite the $80 billion in federal money spent over the past decade to close the achievement gap, achievement in 4th grade reading has not improved in the general population, and reading scores among children who are the most at risk of illiteracy have declined.

Bearing this in mind, Members should not only resist pressure to weaken H.R. 1's reforms, but work intently to improve its provisions. Specifically, its reforms should be strengthened to yield greater programming flexibility and accountability; its testing provisions should be strengthened to provide educators, reformers, and parents with the most accurate information on the results their efforts are achieving; and its choice provisions should be strengthened to offer children greater opportunities to achieve.

THE PRESIDENT'S PLAN

President Bush's No Child Left Behind plan, unveiled in January, includes an ambitious series of education reforms to improve results.2 The President recommends consolidating over 60 federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) programs into a smaller number of performance-based categories such as improving the academic performance of disadvantaged children, promoting literacy, increasing teacher quality, enhancing technology, boosting English fluency, improving math and science education, and strengthening school safety.

The President's plan would require, for the first time in the federal education system, that recipients of federal dollars demonstrate that their students are in fact learning and benefiting from the programs that serve them. Administrators would have greater flexibility in deciding how to meet that requirement, and children trapped in persistently failing and unsafe institutions would be able to transfer to successful schools.

Committees in both houses of Congress have drafted bills to reauthorize the ESEA programs that include some reforms. Members of Congress, however, are under considerable pressure by interest groups to eliminate education reforms in these bills and merely reauthorize existing programs at higher authorization levels. Many of the President's No Child Left Behind reforms reflected in these bills, including measures to promote academic excellence and administrative flexibility, are under attack by those who believe the status quo is good enough.

Should Congress succumb to this pressure, its efforts will merely deepen America's education crisis. Simply increasing funding will not improve education, as the historical evidence shows. Despite the steady growth in spending and Clinton Administration initiatives to improve education, the results of the 2000 NAEP reading test administered to 4th graders show that achievement in reading has not improved.

The need for genuine reform is clear. Federal education programs have not increased student achievement, and continuing to fund them as they are now will leave more children, especially disadvantaged children, behind. Congress should follow President Bush's proposals in his No Child Left Behind plan and reform the education system by consolidating existing programs into performance-based grants to the states and districts, giving them flexibility in determining how to use the grants to fit the unique needs of their student populations, requiring these programs to produce evidence that they are boosting academic achievement, and giving children in persistently failing schools an opportunity to receive a quality education elsewhere.

HOW H.R. 1 SEEKS TO IMPROVE EDUCATION

Unlike the Better Education for Students and Teachers Act (S. 1), recently approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, H.R. 1 includes more of the reforms to improve education that the President included in his plan.3 The House committee bill would focus education spending on results, both by requiring annual testing to gauge academic achievement and by dedicating resources to make changes where needed, and would break with the status quo by enabling parents to choose better schools for their children and empowering state reformers to devise ways to better serve their students. The bill also includes measures to improve the failing federal bilingual education programs, to emphasize research-based instruction, and to consolidate duplicative and unsuccessful federal education programs.

Accountability for Results
Like the President's No Child Left Behind plan, H.R. 1 demands accountability for student achievement. In exchange for the federal education dollars they would receive, states would have to set clear, measurable goals and implement annual state tests to ensure that all students are achieving. Their bilingual programs, for example, would have to show that students actually learn to read and speak English, that their reading programs effectively teach children to read, and so on. While there is room for discussion as to how this testing should occur, the need for it is obvious. Currently, these programs do not have to demonstrate that they are achieving their objectives in order to receive federal funding.

The No Child Left Behind Act would address this by establishing a system of monetary rewards and sanctions for states based on achievement. Although relatively small, these rewards and sanctions would create an incentive for the education establishment to achieve better results.

The most significant accountability mechanism in H.R. 1, however, is school choice. Like the President's proposal, H.R. 1 would enable students attending Title I schools that failed to improve for three years to take their Title I per-pupil dollars to another school, either public or private. Victims of school violence would also be eligible to attend other schools. As a recent survey conducted on behalf of the National Education Association found, there is strong support for such programs: 63 percent of those polled favored legislation that would provide parents with tuition vouchers of $1,500 a year to send their children to any public, private, or charter school.4

To demonstrate the impact of choice on academic achievement, the bill authorizes the U.S. Secretary of Education to make grants to eligible entities to carry out and evaluate research on the effects of school choice.5 Although current research indicates positive returns for choice, the number of studies on choice is still limited. Funds under Title IV Part C could be used by states and districts to create their own public or private school choice programs. These provisions in H.R. 1 make a small but valuable first step in efforts to focus federal funding on the needs of children rather than on institutions.

To ensure that more children can receive a good education, the constraints on choice in H.R. 1 should be removed. As written, state laws could still deny school choice to Title I students in failing schools. Private school choice is limited to the size of the Title I per-pupil expenditure, which amounts to only a few hundred dollars in most cases. A child could take those Title I funds to another school only after the first institution had failed to improve for three years in a row.6 A loss of three years of learning in the early grades has grave academic consequences. Would any Members of Congress allow their children to attend failing schools for three years?

Roughly 7,000 Title I schools are designated officially as being in need of "improvement" because they are failing to make adequate annual achievement gains.7 Many of these schools have not changed despite waves of reform over decades. Their lack of reform should not hinder a child's opportunity to learn. Choice would help students escape from such failing schools.

School choice can serve as an impetus for district and statewide reforms. The available evidence suggests that public schools with poor achievement levels improve when they are at risk of losing students.8 Introducing the competitive forces that work so well in other industries into education makes the entire system more consumer-sensitive and accountable to parents and children who have the freedom to go elsewhere if they are dissatisfied.

Streamlining Administration and Ending Duplication
Like the President's plan, H.R. 1 would consolidate duplicative or unnecessary programs to reduce bureaucracy and ensure that more dollars flow to the classroom. For example, the Safe and Drug Free Schools program and the 21st Century Learning Centers program would be consolidated. It also would provide more focus on core programs than the current ESEA law does or the Senate committee bill would. However, the number of programs it allows would remain high.

Current law contains 61 separate line-item authorized programs. The Senate committee bill includes 45 such programs, and the House bill includes 33. The President's plan contains a much smaller number of core programs: education for the disadvantaged, teacher quality, safe schools, math and science instruction, technology, character education, Impact Aid, and English fluency.

The consolidation proposed in H.R. 1 would represent a good start toward eliminating duplicative and ineffective programs, but the House committee should seek further consolidation and resist efforts to add new programs.

Flexibility for Local Officials
H.R. 1 contains several provisions to give states and school districts flexibility in the administration of their federal education programs. Districts would be authorized to transfer funds between programs: up to 35 percent at the local level without state permission and up to 100 percent with state approval.

One of these provisions reflects the "Charter States" proposal in the President's plan. Similar to the Academic Achievement for All Act (H.R. 2300), or "Straight A's," passed by the House during the 106th Congress, the H.R. 1 provision would allow states and districts significant flexibility in exchange for meeting high accountability standards in improving academic achievement. One of the bill's most significant provisions, Straight A's would cut top-heavy bureaucracy and empower state and local education reformers to focus federal dollars on important priorities. Many reform-minded state and local superintendents support this provision.

Under the current system, funding priorities are set in Washington, D.C., and do not reflect what is needed in every state or school district. These one-size-fits-all federal categorical programs are not aligned with state and district priorities. Under H.R. 1, if a state or district applied for Straight A's and met the qualifying terms to participate, it could send federal dollars where they are most needed.

For example, if a district already had sufficient computer technology but needed more teachers, its superintendent could shift more federal dollars to teacher recruitment. If class size reductions yielded no improvement in test scores, the state education authority could shift federal funding to improve curricula. States with more rural areas could design and implement a comprehensive rural school initiative. Urban districts could fund innovative music programs that have been shown to improve mathematics comprehension. So long as the state or district showed clear and quantifiable academic improvements from these efforts, it would continue to have the freedom to create a better system to serve its student population.

Promoting Academic Excellence
Like the Bush plan, H.R. 1 also focuses on building research-based instruction. Its Reading First plan would provide funds to the states to focus on implementing proven methods of teaching reading, based on scientific research, to ensure that all students learn to read by the 3rd grade. The bill also would reform bilingual education to focus existing programs on teaching English to limited English proficient children and expediting their transition into regular education classes. The bill requires parental consent before students can be placed in an instructional program that is not taught primarily in English.

There are no requirements in current law that schools must demonstrate that these children have learned English. Students in bilingual education classes tend to learn English at a slower rate, later in their schooling, and with greater difficulty than do their peers.9 Students are often enrolled in bilingual classes without their parents' knowledge or permission, and some parents have had difficulty removing them from those programs. For these reasons, several states have ended or limited participation in bilingual education.

Whether in committee, on the House floor, or during conference to reconcile the House and Senate bills, Members should defend H.R. 1's provisions that would ensure that limited English proficient students learn to read and speak English.

Protecting Teachers
H.R. 1 includes a provision to shield teachers, principals, and school board members from liability when they undertake reasonable actions to maintain order and discipline in the classroom--a measure that was passed by both chambers during the 106th Congress.10 Limiting legal liability would reduce the threat of frivolous and arbitrary lawsuits against educators who are acting in their professional capacity. It would empower teachers to create an environment that is both safe and conducive to learning by eliminating a barrier to discipline in the classroom.

HOW TO IMPROVE H.R. 1

When the House Committee on Education and the Workforce considers H.R. 1, and when the bill goes to the full House of Representatives, reform-minded Members should strengthen its positive reforms. Specifically, they should:

  • Strengthen school choice provisions. These provisions, while welcome, are still too
    modest. Members should remove restrictions that prevent Title I students in failing schools from exercising choice if they live in states that prohibit choice. Students in failing schools should not have to suffer poor education for three years before they can transfer to a more successful school, putting them at an increased achievement disadvantage. Members should also consider how to enable other children, like disadvantaged children in non-Title I schools, to take advantage of tax credits and education savings accounts.

  • Strengthen testing provisions to ensure that the states provide clear, accurate information about student achievement. The tests administered each year and in subsequent years need to be compatible so that their results are comparable. Tests that are not comparable will not yield precise information about what students have learned or whether a program has value.

  • Further consolidate federal programs. Safe and Drug Free Schools and 21st Century Learning Centers, which have been consolidated in both the President's plan and the
    first draft of H.R. 1, represent a good approach. Programs for migratory populations, neglected and delinquent children, and homeless students essentially target disadvantaged populations. These programs, for example, should be folded together into general Title I funds to consolidate their federal dollars so that states and districts can use them to meet their unique needs.

  • Enhance the Straight A's provisions. Attempts to reduce the number of states that can become Charter States or the number of programs that can be included in the charter agreement should be opposed. Removing the Title I "hold harmless" provision would allow states greater flexibility to target funds to poor children to increase their opportunities to learn.

CONCLUSION

The draft version of H.R. 1, the No Child Left Behind Act now before the House Education and the Workforce Committee, incorporates many of the education reforms sought by President Bush. Its measures to promote accountability, flexibility, focus, and academic excellence should be strengthened. Members should strengthen the school choice provision, further consolidate the 33 ESEA programs it authorizes, and remove regulations that prevent educators and states from pursuing their own bold initiatives to meet the needs of their students.

If the House, however, succumbs to pressure and substantially weakens the bill to maintain the status quo, more children will pass through public schools without gaining essential knowledge and skills. Americans do not want or need massive federal spending on programs that leave children further behind.

Krista Kafer is Education Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.


2. For the President's No Child Left Behind proposal, see http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/reports/no-child-left-behind.html (March 19, 2001).

3. For a description of S. 1, the Senate's leading vehicle for education reform, see Krista Kafer, "A Failing Grade for S. 1, the Senate Education Committee Bill," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1433, April 23, 2001.

4. Greenberg Quinlan Research, Inc., and the Tarrance Group, National Education Association Survey, March 2001.

5. For a description of the rationale for this provision, see Thomas Dawson, "Why Congress Should Foster Research on School Choice," Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum No. 738, April 13, 2001.

6. No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (H.R. 1), Title 1, Part A, "Assessment and Local Education Agency and School Improvement," Section 1116(7)(A)(i)II.

7. Education at a Crossroads 2000: The Road to Excellence, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives, 106th Cong., 2nd Sess., October 2000, p. 7.

8. Jay P. Green, Ph.D., "An Evaluation of the Florida A-Plus Accountability and School Choice Program," Manhattan Institute, February 2001.

9. Don Soifer, "Bilingual Education: Where Do We Go From Here?" Lexington Institute, June 19, 1998.

10. See Juvenile Justice Bill (H.R. 1501), Amendment 213, passed by the House of Representatives on June 17, 1999, and Juvenile Justice Bill (S. 254), Amendment  361, passed by the Senate on May 19, 1999.

About the Author

Krista Kafer Senior Education Policy Analyst
Domestic Policy Studies