The Obama Administration has another problem on its hands. The mighty hand of the federal government has its grip on education in the form of the No Child Left Behind federal law on public education, but the trouble is that the law isn’t working. Instead of a top-down approach to education, it’s time for restoring state and local control over education, while downsizing the Department of Education.
That’s a lesson that Education Secretary Arne Duncan needs to learn.
In an interview last week, Duncan expressed frustration at the “slow motion train wreck” that is No Child Left Behind, which is up for re-authorization. Under the law, all children are required to be proficient in math and reading by 2014—a standard that could leave three-quarters of U.S. schools labeled as failures, leaving them at risk of losing federal funding.
But the federal government has neither the authority nor the capacity to achieve local school improvement, as a half-century record shows. As a result, schools and states are scrambling, and the NCLB mandate has led to “serious unintended consequences, such as a weakening of state achievement standards and a loss of transparency to parents and taxpayers about students’ real academic performance,” according to The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke. But there are even bigger problems—the significant expansion of the federal role in education, leading to restrictive red tape tying up local and state education leaders.
The costs of complying with federal mandates are extraordinary. Burke writes that “estimates from 2006 found that the new guidelines and regulations created by NCLB increased state and local education agencies’ annual paperwork burden by 6.7 million hours, at a cost of $141 million.” That number continues to grow. According to Representative John Kline (R–MN):
States and school districts work 7.8 million hours each year collecting and disseminating information required under Title I of federal education law. Those hours cost more than $235 million. The burden is tremendous, and this is just one of many federal laws weighing down our schools.
And despite the rules and regulations, not to mention a tripling of federal per-pupil expenditures and $2 trillion of taxpayer money spent since 1965, academic achievement and graduation rates have remained flat.
Rather than recognize that a top-down approach to education isn’t the answer, President Barack Obama and Secretary Duncan want to stay the course and perhaps grant waivers on test score requirements. They don’t want to lose their grip on local schools.
The good news is that there’s an alternative.
The Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) Act, a conservative alternative to No Child Left Behind, would remove the reams and reams of Department of Education bureaucracy handed down to states and empower them to direct how their education dollars are spent. It would allow states to opt out of No Child Left Behind and increase state and local control in education while increasing transparency of results to parents and taxpayers.
A-PLUS provides states the opportunity to put the 10th Amendment into practice right now by opting out of the many federal programs under NCLB. At the same time, policymakers should work to move the underlying law in the same direction: sending dollars and decision-making to those closest to students by eliminating programs, increasing flexibility, and directing accountability to parents and taxpayers, not bureaucrats in Washington.
There are some 60 competitive grant programs and approximately 20 formula grant programs that fall under NCLB alone. In all, the Department of Education operates more than 100 competitive and formula grant programs. The application processes are terribly complex, leading schools to devote precious times and resources to focusing their attention on Washington in hopes of getting funding.
Federal policymakers should reduce the federal footprint in education by eliminating the majority of competitive grant programs and consolidating most formula grant programs so more dollars reach students in need, rather than getting soaked up by bureaucracy. Policymakers should also allow states to make federal Title I dollars ($14.5 billion for low-income schools) portable, to follow a child to a school of his or her choice.
Burke writes that the time has come for the federal government to honestly assess its performance in education and reassess its role:
For more than 45 years, Washington has tried and failed to reform education. Academic achievement languishes, graduation rates have stagnated, and achievement gaps stubbornly persist. It is time for Washington to hand back the reins to state and local leaders, and let go of the federal government’s stifling grip over education policy.
Layer upon layer of regulations and trillions in federal spending have achieved little if any results in education. The federal government has had its chance, and America’s schoolchildren have suffered. Congress and the Obama Administration need to put an end to the Department of Education “slow motion train wreck” that continues to create havoc in America’s schools.
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