The Republican Party has a golden opportunity to roll back federal overreach in education policy in 2015, and shouldn’t throw that chance away, argues the Heritage Foundation in a newly released policy brief.
Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who served as George H. W. Bush’s secretary of education, will become the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee once the 114th Congress convenes. He’s said that his top priority is pushing through a revision of 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and he wants to try passing such a bill early in the year.
Passed with strong bipartisan support in 2001, NCLB set a national goal of all students being proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014 (a goal that, needless to say, has not been met). Since then, it has been sharply criticized for placing an excessive focus on standardized tests and for encouraging schools to adopt lower standards in order to meet required yearly progress goals. Since 2012, the Obama administration has sought to mitigate the law’s more extreme impacts by offering states ad-hoc waivers from the law’s requirements.
Alexander has put forward a proposed revision to the law before. His proposals include eliminating the requirement for adequate yearly progress, ditching a provision defining “Highly Qualified Teachers” based on their paper credentials, and generally reducing the number of hard and fast requirements imposed on states in order to access federal education funds.
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However, the Heritage Foundation is now arguing that while Alexander’s past proposal is a good starting point, Republicans should not be content with relatively minor modifications to the law.
“I think most of what we can expect would moderately improve on NCLB. But I think moderately improving on that is a real missed opportunity for conservatives in Congress,” Lindsey Burke, a Heritage Foundation policy analyst in education, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. Bigger changes, she said, could substantively change the relationship between the state and federal governments on education, rather than making mere marginal adjustments.
The biggest change conservatives could make, she said, would be to create the option for states to create funding portability for Title I spending. Title I, created in the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which NCLB updated), is designed to provide federal funds to low-income schools, and constitutes the bulk of spending under NCLB. Currently, funds are given to schools, but Burke argues that states should be allowed to have money flow directly to individual students, who can then take the money with them to any particular public, charter, or private school.
“We need to move away from a model of school-centered funding and embrace student-centered funding,” said Burke. While Title I only constitutes a small portion of overall education spending, she said, the monetary shift would help drive a shift in mindset and would also help to strengthen existing state-level programs providing school vouchers to low-income families.
The other big change suggested by Heritage is to allow all states to opt out of NCLB’s mandates and instead accept federal education funding as a large block grant that they can use however they wish. Allowing states to opt out of NCLB without losing any federal funding would almost certainly kill the bill’s regulatory power, as states would have no incentive not to opt out.
However, Burke says that’s exactly the point, as it would both devolve more authority to the states and also save money by greatly reducing the need for expansive state-level education bureaucracies currently dedicated to making sure federal demands are met.
“When states don’t have to dedicate resources to monitoring these federal grants…they just might be able to put more money to the classroom,” said Burke.
While Alexander has shown an interest in increasing efficiency and reducing costs by consolidating several similar programs together, Heritage argues that Alexander’s true goal should be eliminating many federal programs altogether. Burke singled out NCLB’s numerous competitive grant programs as worthy of elimination, noting that they are expensive to administer and almost always have extremely niche goals like promoting educational television. Eliminating them en masse would save about $2 billion a year, she said.
Whether Alexander has any interest in heeding Heritage’s suggestions is unclear. The senator has a history of trying to achieve legislative compromises, and any bill that leaves the Senate will still have to earn a signature from President Obama.
However, Burke said that decades of educational mediocrity in the United States should make it clear that making minor modifications to the traditional approach is just not enough.
“Outcomes have been almost entirely flat…we’re not internationally competitive, [and] graduation rates have increased only nominally,” she said. “If there were any private companies that have tripled their operating costs and produced flat outcomes, they’d be out of business.”
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