The Student Success Act as a Model

by Reihan Salam

Given the many failures of the House Republicans, it is encouraging that all but 12 of them voted for the Student Success Act, a bill that Rick Hess of the American Enteprise Institute describes as a significant improvement on No Child Left Behind:

It dumps NCLB’s one-size-fits-all system of “adequate yearly progress” and instead requires states collecting federal funds to regularly assess students and publicly report the disaggregated results. It repeals the bureaucratic “highly qualified teacher” mandate, with its fetish for education school credentials and paperwork. It eliminates or consolidates over 70 programs. It includes new language prohibiting federal officials from compelling states to adopt and support the Common Core. It allows states to let Title I funds for low-income students follow those children to the public school of their choice.

The Student Success Act does not get Uncle Sam “out” of K-12 education, but conservatives should be okay with that. In truth, even those firebrands vociferously calling for the feds to get out have repeatedly refused to eliminate, or even aggressively cut, federal aid for low-income students and special education. Since the cost of those two programs totals about $25 billion a year, accounting for the majority of federal spending on K-12 education, the feds will be involved for the foreseeable future. Given that, the principled, constructive course is to unwind intrusive mandates and red tape while insisting on transparency when it comes to academic results and how federal tax dollars are spent.

And as Hess goes on to explain, the Student Success Act is also designed to limit the authority of the Secretary of Education, who has wide authority to waive various provisions of the No Child Left Behind Law — authority that in the view of Hess and others has been taken too far.

Unfortunately, the Student Success Act met with unified opposition from House Democrats. Many Democrats argued that the Student Success Act is not sufficiently prescriptive, as Pete Kasperowicz reports in The Hill:

Democrats say the bill is too dramatic a shift back to state control, and warned on Thursday that the bill would let state education standards slide. They also argued the bill would give states more freedom to ignore special needs students and students learning English than they can under current law.

It is thus not likely that the Student Success Act will make progress in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But the Student Success Act does seem like the kind of legislative proposal that the congressional GOP ought to champion: it grants more autonomy to state and local officials, it streamlines categorical spending, it clarifies lines of authority, yet it prunes rather than eliminates the federal government’s role.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.