The 110th Congress (2007-2008) is scheduled to consider
reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which will
be the ninth reauthorization of the original Elementary and
Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). Yet after four decades and
hundreds of billions of dollars, the federal government's
involvement in K-12 education in America has failed to improve
student achievement significantly.
Five years after its enactment, it is becoming clear that the
NCLB, like previous versions of the ESEA, does not have the
capacity to resolve the problems that plague American public
education. Growing evidence suggests that the latest federal
strategy for improving education is not accomplishing its
objectives, again demonstrating the federal government's
inability to improve local education.
As Congress considers a ninth reauthorization of the ESEA, it
should break the pattern of increasing funding for expansive
federal programs intended to steer education policy nationwide.
This pattern has encouraged the proliferation of state bureaucracy
and fostered a compliance mentality among state and local
officials, leading them to focus primarily on following
Instead, Congress should take a step toward restoring
better governance by returning policymaking authority to the state
and local levels, thereby promoting an environment in which
education policymakers would be more directly responsive to those
who are primarily affected by their decisions: students, parents,
and local taxpayers. Reducing the federal government's role in
education to a level commensurate with its 8 percent share of
funding for local education would give states the opportunity to
implement more appropriate and effective strategies.
Specifically, Congress should embrace a "charter state
option." This would allow every state to choose between the
status quo and a simplified contractual arrangement in which the
state would have broad authority to consolidate and refocus its
federal funds on state-directed initiatives in exchange for
monitoring and reporting academic progress. The charter state
option would restore greater federalism in education, allowing
state leaders to embrace innovative strategies according to
their local needs, priorities, and reform philosophy while making
them more directly responsible to parents and taxpayers for the
The Federal Education Track Record
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and
Secondary Education Act as a part of his War on Poverty initiative.
At the signing ceremony, he said, "I believe deeply no law I have
signed or will ever sign will mean more to the future of
America." The 34-page ESEA provided for approximately
$2 billion in federal funding to improve educational opportunities
for the disadvantaged.
Over the next four decades, the ESEA was reauthorized eight
times, and the federal government's involvement in education grew.
By 2002, the law had ballooned into the 1,100-page No Child Left
Behind Act of 2001, funded at $22 billion. Despite significant increases
in federal funding for K-12 education over the past three decades,
little evidence indicates any improvement in academic
achievement over this period.
Chart 1 and Chart 2 compare student performance on the
long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) since
the 1970s with federal spending. Federal spending has increased
dramatically (146 percent between 1970 and 2005), but test
scores have generally remained flat in reading and have
improved only slightly in math.
The No Child Left Behind Act of
President George W. Bush arrived in Washington promising to
transform the federal role in education. During the 2000
campaign, he had said, "I don't want to tinker with the machinery
of the federal role in education. I want to redefine that role
entirely." He also expressed a belief in a limited
federal role in education: "I do not want to be the federal
superintendent of schools," Bush explained in 2000. "I don't want
to be the national principal. I believe in local control of
Shortly after the President entered the White House, the Bush
Administration unveiled a 31-page blueprint for reforming the
ESEA. The plan, known as No Child Left Behind,
sought to accomplish four objectives: increase accountability
for student performance, focus on what works, reduce
bureaucracy and increase flexibility for states and school
districts, and empower parents with school choice. The Administration
also sought to build bipartisan support for fundamental reforms by
proposing a significant increase in federal spending.
As the NCLB proposal was developed on Capitol Hill, leading
Democrats, including Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and
Representative George Miller (D-CA), played an important role in
shaping the legislation. During negotiations, key components
of the original Bush Administration package, such as private school
choice and a charter state option to allow greater flexibility,
were stripped from the bill.
After a year of congressional negotiations, the NCLB emerged as
a 1,100-page bill that established substantial new requirements on
states and schools and expanded funding for ESEA programs by
approximately 26 percent. On January 8, 2002, President Bush signed
the NCLB into law.
Assessing the NCLB After Five
After five years and a spending increase of nearly $6 billion,
the NCLB highlights the limits and challenges of federal
involvement in education. American students are not on track to
meet the law's proficiency goals, and the NCLB has failed to
accomplish two of the core objectives of President Bush's original
blueprint for education reform: significantly increasing state
and local flexibility and substantially expanding parental choice
The centerpiece of the NCLB is a set of student testing and
accountability requirements that were designed to put all students
on course to achieve proficiency on state examinations by 2014. To
meet that objective, the NCLB extended the Department of
Education's reach into new aspects of American education. The law
requires states to test students annually in grades 3-8 and once in
grades 10-12 and to report student performance (including
disaggregated scores for student subgroups) and progress
toward proficiency, which is known as adequate yearly progress
(AYP). Schools that fail to meet AYP are subject to a timeline of
school improvement reforms, including public school choice,
after-school tutoring, or school restructuring.
Early evidence suggests that the NCLB has not substantially
changed American students' academic achievement. Moreover, some
researchers have found that the law may be distorting preexisting
state assessments by creating dual accountability systems and
watered-down testing measures.
In addition, the NCLB has demonstrated the federal
government's limited ability to ensure that states and local school
systems offer greater parental choice in education.
Participation in both the public school choice and the after-school
tutoring provisions of the NCLB has been low. Specifically:
- Less than 1 percent of the 3.9 million eligible students used
the public school choice options during the 2003-2004 school
- Participation in the limited option of subsidized
after-school tutoring program is higher but still low. Only 17
percent of eligible students participated in Supplemental
Education Services during the 2004-2005 school year.
One reason for low participation in public school choice under
NCLB is the limited capacity in high-quality schools in some school
districts. One remedy in such cases would be to allow students to
choose to attend private schools as an alternative, but
federal law does not permit that option.
The Charter State Approach
When the 110th Congress considers reauthorization of the No
Child Left Behind Act, it should consider the constitutional,
financial, and practical limitations on federal involvement in
education. Federal efforts to steer education policy and
ever-increasing funding have not led to improved student
achievement. To the contrary, they have created a convoluted
reporting system that has encouraged the proliferation of state
bureaucracy and a compliance mentality among many state and local
In 1994, the General Accounting Office reported that 13,400
federally funded full-time employees in state education agencies
were tasked with federal education program implementation--three
times the number working in the U.S. Department of Education.
The House Committee on Education and the Workforce reported in 1999
that in Georgia, 29 percent of Georgia Department of
Education employees (93 out of 322) worked full-time on
paperwork and administration of federal programs in 1996-1997, even
though these federal programs provided only 6.4 percent of total
education funding in the state.
In this reauthorization, Congress should take a first step
toward restoring coherence to state and local education
policymaking by offering states an alternative status that is free
of distortions and the distractions of complying with extensive
federal program processes and regulations. State and local
policymakers have the authority to effect change throughout state
school systems and are more directly accountable to parents and
Specifically, Congress should create a charter state option in
which a state could opt for a contractual relationship that
would allow state and local authorities to make decisions based on
how best to help students with the available resources. The
contract would free state and local authorities from federal
regulations and red tape, reducing the federal government's role to
a level commensurate with its 8 percent funding share in local
education. Under the contract, state elected officials would have
the discretion to consolidate and refocus their federal education
funding on state-directed initiatives--from phonics to
class-size reduction--in exchange for monitoring and reporting
The charter option would allow different states to pursue
differing methods to enhance student learning. For example, one
state could choose to build on promising school choice reforms and
increase parental options by expanding access to charter schools or
by implementing tuition scholarships or education tax credits.
Another state could pursue reforms designed to improve teacher
quality in low-performing public schools. Federalism would
give each state the freedom to implement its reform strategies
while learning from the successes and failures of other states'
A charter state option would work in much the same way as a
charter school contract. States choosing a charter status with the
federal government would operate with greater freedom in
exchange for results. Any state could choose the charter
alternative by the decision of its legislative and executive
branches. The state would specify which of its federal K-12
education programs would be part of the contract. The charter state
would then be exempt from the program mandates, processes, and
paperwork associated with the programs included in its
contract, and the federal government would provide the money
for these programs to the state in a single funding stream.
In the initial contract, state officials would also describe and
establish a clear plan for measuring student performance, including
the state's system for testing all public school students,
monitoring annual progress relative to proficiency, and
reporting the results to parents and taxpayers.
In summary, the contract would consist of a designation of
federal programs to be included in the flexibility agreement and a
description of the state's academic testing, monitoring, and public
reporting system. If Title I is included, the contract would also
describe the state's plan for providing compensatory education
to eligible students.
The charter option would change the relationship between
the federal government and the states. Acknowledging states and
localities as the appropriate formulators of education
policy, the federal government would simply provide
aid for education while verifying that states are
accountable to their citizens for the expenditure of those
funds and the results they yield.
Background of the Charter State
The charter state option is based on a proposal that gained
considerable support on Capitol Hill and among state policymakers
during the late 1990s. In 1999, Chairman Bill Goodling (R-PA)
introduced the Academic Achievement for All Act (H.R. 2300 and S.
1266), commonly called the Straight A's Act, which offered all
states the opportunity to enter into contractual agreements
with the federal government similar to the charter state option.
Many of the Members of the incoming 110th Congress either sponsored
or voted for the original Straight A's proposal, including 112
Representatives and 22 Senators.
Among state lawmakers and organizations, 13 governors--including
Jeb Bush (R-FL), Bill Owens (R-CO), and George Pataki
(R-NY)--endorsed the Straight A's proposal, and several state and
local school leaders testified before Congress on its behalf.
The National Council of State Legislators and the American
Legislative Exchange Council endorsed the Straight A's proposal.
Paul Vallas, former chief executive officer of the Chicago public
schools and now CEO of the District of Philadelphia, testified
before a House subcommittee field hearing in Chicago: "[W]e support
the concept of combining as many federal programs as possible into
one or two grants, tied to contracts for agreed-upon results."
On September 23, 1999, Governor Bush testified before a House
committee on behalf of the measure:
Though the federal contribution to education in Florida is
small, only about 7 percent of total spending, it takes more than
40 percent of the state's education staff to oversee and
administer federal dollars. In fact, in Florida, six times as many
people are required to administer a federal education
dollar as are required by a state dollar. And how much
learning has the federal government achieved through these
expenditures? No one knows.
Imagine 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 rules. At the
very least, the federal government should stop creating
barriers for states that are taking new educational approaches.
On October 21, 1999, by a vote of 213 to 208, the House of
Representatives passed a version of Straight A's that would have
created a pilot project for 10 states. However, the measure
stalled in the Senate and never became law.
When President Bush entered the White House in 2001, a provision
similar to the House version of the Straight A's plan was included
in the Administration's original No Child Left Behind
A charter option for states and districts committed to
accountability and reform will be created. Under this program,
charter states and districts would be freed from categorical
program requirements in return for submitting a five-year
performance agreement to the Secretary of Education and being
subject to especially rigorous standards of accountability.
However, the charter option was stripped from the bill during
the NCLB debate. In its place, the law included a modest provision
to allow states limited flexibility to consolidate and redirect
certain funding within federal programs, which was a far cry
from allowing states the flexibility to consolidate all
The NCLB has not delivered on the promised flexibility in
directing education policy and instead has produced the largest
expansion of federal involvement in state and local education
policy since 1965. As a result, more state and local officials
have recognized negative aspects of the federal government's role
Reviving the Straight A's idea through the charter state option
may have even more appeal now than it did in the 1990s. Moreover,
the NCLB has created a greater nationwide focus on results. In this
environment, it makes sense to move away from highly
prescriptive and cumbersome federal program management to
an alternative arrangement that allows states to exercise full
authority over the means (educational policy and strategy for
improving student achievement) as they take responsibility for
Creating a Successful Charter State
In the face of mounting criticism of the NCLB, Congress may be
tempted to increase funding for the status quo or to return to the
pre-NCLB federal role in education. Neither course is advisable.
Instead, Congress should create a charter state option, an idea
that gained considerable support among state and federal
policymakers during the 1990s and was regrettably left behind in
the negotiations over the No Child Left Behind Act.
To create a successful charter state option, Congress
should follow five principles:
Principle #1: All states should be
given the charter option.
All states should have the choice to take advantage of the
charter state option. Each state should be free to decide whether
local students and schools would be better served by state-directed
education reforms or by the existing system of federal rules
Principle #2: States should be given
maximum freedom and flexibility to control funds and
Under the charter state option, a state should have maximum
freedom and control over its federal education funding and
policy decisions. In its contract with the U.S. Department of
Education, it should be allowed to include all federal K-12
education funding--including earmarks and categorical and
competitive grants--with the freedom to allocate the funds toward
any education activity authorized under state law.
Currently, a typical state receives its share of federal
funding for K-12 through dozens of programs, each with its own
paperwork and administrative requirements that impose a heavy
burden on states. More important, the federal programs and
requirements distort state and local governance of
education by encouraging a compliance mentality among
administrators instead of a spirit of leadership in implementing
strategic plans to meet the specific needs of their students.
State policymakers and administrators are in a better position
than Congress or the U.S. Department of Education to assess
student needs and implement meaningful strategies to meet those
needs. They can also make adjustments promptly when circumstances
require rather than just once every five or more years when
reauthorizing the federal program. Under a flexible charter
agreement, state officials would be able to decide what
combination of resources and strategies will best serve their
Principle #3: States should be allowed
to manage their student assessment systems with
transparency about the process and results.
Under the charter state agreement, states would maintain the
freedom to create and direct their assessment systems. Such systems
should contain essential elements of current law: systematically
measuring the progress of all students relative to proficiency
levels, establishing a baseline for monitoring progress over
time, and maintaining uniformity of testing procedures
throughout the course of the charter agreement. States would report
scores by student subgroup and chart progress over time to allow
for year-to-year comparisons. They would provide for the broad
dissemination of this information to parents and
States should have the freedom to develop more meaningful and
appropriate means of measuring adequate yearly progress than
provided under current law, including measures that allow for
comparison of the same cohort over time rather than comparing
one cohort to the next.
Principle #4: States should be allowed
freedom to improve Title I delivery.
Giving states real autonomy should also include allowing for
freedom of delivery of Title I funds to assist disadvantaged
students. Currently, the Title I program is administered through a
set of complex and cumbersome formulas that substantially
deplete funds before they reach eligible students. Congress should
first simplify Title I and then allow states the freedom to deliver
funds more effectively based on their own strategies,
consistent with the goals of compensatory education. States
should be free to include Title I in their charter agreement if
they guarantee to refocus those funds in a manner that advances
that goal. This strategy should be stated explicitly in the
Some states may choose to keep the existing Title I system in
place. Others may opt for a new method of funding compensatory
education and assisting disadvantaged students and their schools.
For example, a state could choose to distribute its share of Title
I funding to eligible students through a portable funding
Principle #5: Congress should clearly
define the criteria for contract approval.
If a state meets the clear, congressionally defined contract
guidelines, its contract should be approved by the U.S. Department
of Education. The Secretary of Education should simply have the
authority to verify whether or not the state has met legislative
requirements for the charter agreement. The contract elements
should not be subject to negotiation. Rather, the contract is an
opportunity to establish formally how the state proposes to proceed
for the purpose of later verification. This provision should be
The contract agreement would cover a five-year period. If the
state abides by the terms of the contract, it would be free extend
its contract for another time period.
Across the United States, nearly 50 million students are served
by 96,000 public schools. Policymakers in Washington, D.C., cannot
be expected to diagnose the diverse learning needs of these
students and to craft solutions adequate to meet all of them. As
the record of the past 40 years shows, federal involvement in
education has not succeeded in improving student achievement in any
As Congress prepares for the ninth reauthorization of the
Elementary and Secondary Education Act, policymakers from across
the political spectrum should recognize the limits of
formulating education policy at the federal level. Federal
reporting and regulatory requirements create a counterproductive
force in state and local education governance by encouraging a
compliance mentality rather than visionary, strategic leadership
and a sense of responsibility for results. Congress should seek to
restore federalism in education governance in order to
encourage state and local leadership that is directly
accountable to parents and taxpayers.
Beginning in 2007, policymakers should steer a course toward
restoring state control of education by enacting a charter state
option. Congress should allow all states to enter into an
alternative contractual arrangement with the federal
government in which they would be freed from federal program
mandates while taking responsibility for results. Such federalism
would create an environment in which promising state and local
education strategies can flourish.
Dan Lips is Education
Analyst, Evan Feinberg is a Research Assistant in Domestic Policy
Studies, and Jennifer
A. Marshall is Director of Domestic Policy Studies at The
Krista Kafer, "No Child Left Behind: Where Do
We Go from Here?" Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1775,
July 6, 2004, at
www.heritage.org/Research/Education/bg1775.cfm, and National
Conference of State Legislatures, "No Child Left Behind Act of
2001," at www.ncsl.org/programs/educ/NCLBHistory.htm
(October 20, 2006).
Kafer, "No Child Left Behind," and National
Conference of State Legislatures, "No Child Left Behind Act of
"Bush Promises 'A Better Way,'" The
Baltimore Sun, October 9, 2000, p. A2.
Milbank, "Bush Says He'll Seek $4.6 Billion Boost in Education,"
The Washington Post, February 21, 2001.
Author's calculations based on budget figures
in U.S. Department of Education, "Summary of Discretionary
For examples on dual accountability, see
Krista Kafer, "No Child Left Behind and Arizona: Making State and
Federal K-12 Accountability Systems Work," Goldwater Institute
Policy Report No. 212, October 17, 2006, at www.goldwaterinstitute.org/
Common/Files/Multimedia/1136.pdf (November 28, 2006), and Paul
Peterson and Martin West, "Is Your Child's School Effective? Don't
Rely on NCLB to Tell You," Education Next, No. 4 (Fall
2006), at http://media.hoover.org/documents/
ednext20064_76.pdf (November 28, 2006). On watered-down testing,
see press release, "Has a 'Race to the Bottom' Begun? Gains on
State Reading Tests Evaporate on NAEP," Thomas B. Fordham
Foundation, October 19, 2005, at www.edexcellence.net/foundation/about/press_release.cfm
?id=19 (November 28, 2006).
Stephanie Stullich, Elizabeth Eisner, Joseph
McCrary, and Collette Roney, Implementation, Vol. I of
National Assessment of Title I: Interim Report, February
2006, NCEE 2006-4001, U.S. Department of Education, Institute of
Education Sciences, February 2006, pp. 42-43, at www.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/disadv/title1interimreport/vol1.pdf
(May 18, 2006).
The Bush Administration has sought to make
private school options available to children in chronically failing
schools through its Opportunity Scholarships for Kids proposal. See
Dan Lips, "America's Opportunity Scholarships for Kids: School
Choice for Students in Underperforming Public Schools," Heritage
Foundation Backgrounder No. 1939, May 30, 2006, at www.heritage.org/Research/Education/upload/98394_1.pdf.
U.S. General Accounting Office, Education
Finance: The Extent of Federal Funding in State Education
Agencies, GAO/HEHS-95- 3, October 1994, at archive.gao.gov/f0902a/152626.pdf (November
28, 2006). The GAO is now known as the Government Accountability
House Report 106-386, Academic Achievement
for All Act (Straight A's Act), Committee on Education and the
Workforce, 106th Cong., 1st Sess., October 15, 1999, p. 10.
Letter from former Governor Jane Dee Hull
(R-AZ), October 18, 1999; letter from Governor Bill Owens (R-CO),
October 14, 1999; letter from Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL), July 16
1999; letter from former Governor Dirk Kempthorne (R-ID),
October 15, 1999; letter from former Governor George H. Ryan
(R-IL), July 22, 2006; letter from former Governor A. Paul
Cellucci (R-MA), October 20, 1999; letter from former Governor
John Engler (R-MI), July 17, 1999; letter from Governor Kenny Guinn
(R-NV), October 19, 1999; letter from former Governor Edward T.
Schafer (R-ND), October 19, 1999; letter from Governor George
Pataki (R-NY), October 19, 1999; letter from former Governor Frank
Keating (R-OK), October 19, 1999; letter from former Governor James
S. Gilmore (R-VA), July 9, 1999; letter from Rita C. Meyer on
behalf of former Governor Jim Geringer (R-WY), October 19, 1999;
and House Report 106-386, pp. 8-15.
The American Legislative Exchange Council
adopted a model resolution urging Congress to support the Straight
A's proposal on May 20, 1999. See American Legislative Exchange
Council, Web site, at www.ALEC.org (November 29, 2006;
subscription required). On May 20, 1999, Representative Ralph M.
Tanner (R-KS) testified on behalf of the National Conference of
State Legislatures before the House Committee on Education and the
Workforce. Hearing, Academic Achievement for All:
Increasing Flexibility and Improving Student Performance and
Accountability, Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S.
House of Representatives, 106th Cong., 1st Sess., May 20, 1999, at
hedcew6-41.000/hedcew6-41.htm (November 28, 2006).
Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL), testimony before
the Committee on the Budget, U.S. House of Representatives,
September 23, 1999.
"House Passes 'Straight A's' Decentralized
Reform Plan," Human Events, January 28, 2000.
Bush, "No Child Left Behind."
Kafer, "No Child Left Behind."
According to the National Conference of State
Legislatures (NCSL), 21 states have considered resolutions that are
critical of No Child Left Behind. Seven states--Colorado,
Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico, Utah, and Virginia--have
passed resolutions critical of NCLB. National Conference of State
Legislatures, "No Child Left Behind: Quick Facts 2004-2005," June
20, 2005, at www.ncsl.org/programs/educ/NCLB2005LegActivity.htm
(November 2, 2006).