Mitt Romney’s education agenda, released last week, has been receiving accolades for its bold vision to expand school choice dramatically (although as we noted earlier, the language should be amended to empower states to enact school choice options instead of creating a federal school choice mandate). While the school choice aspect of his plan has received the most attention, there’s another equally impactful piece: Romney’s proposal to strengthen No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

NCLB is a bureaucratic nightmare that is derided on both sides of the aisle. Instead of trying to improve or strengthen the law, conservatives have championed allowing states to opt out from NCLB altogether.

The conservative alternative to No Child Left Behind—the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) Act—would allow states to completely opt out of NCLB while retaining reporting requirements for student subgroups.

Instead of the 80 federal programs under NCLB and time-consuming bureaucratic compliance burden, A-PLUS would send federal education dollars back to the states through block grants, which could be used for any lawful education purpose under state statute that would benefit students. It’s a far better alternative than requiring states and local school districts to abide by the overreach that a ninth reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (today known as No Child Left Behind) would produce.

While A-PLUS would allow states to opt out from NCLB completely, a conservative education agenda would also include eliminating the vast majority of federal education programs, which today number more than 150.

So in order to get on the path toward actually reducing the federal role in education, Romney’s education agenda should be amended as follows:

  1. Allow states to opt out of federal K–12 programs authorized under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and direct funding to the programs of their choice. The A-PLUS approach would create direct accountability to parents and taxpayers, aligning the incentives of states with the needs of families, not compliance with Washington.
  2. Reduce the federal footprint in education by eliminating and consolidating programs. Instead of funneling money to the states through more than 150 competitive and formula grant programs operated by the federal government, federal policymakers should scale back the number of programs and consolidate funding among many others. The vast majority of competitive grant programs operated within the Department of Education should be eliminated, and formula grant programs that are similarly structured should be subsumed under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
  3. Simplify Title I and consolidate formula funding programs to better target funding to needy students. The Title I funding formula should be simplified using a set per-pupil allocation to ensure maximum funding reaches poor children, rather than diluting it due to formula complexity and administrative requirements. Congress should also permit states to make Title I funding portable, allowing funding to follow a child to the school of his parents’ choice—public, private, virtual, or otherwise.

For a half-century, federal education policy has headed in the wrong direction—toward further centralization. As with entitlements and the welfare state, America can’t afford to go in the wrong direction any longer.