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Learning to Let Go
When it comes to education, the federal government should give autonomy to the states in exchange for accountability.


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Forty years ago, the front pages of U.S. newspapers were asking “Can America Compete?” At the time, we were falling behind Russia in the space race, and Americans were wondering whether we had lost our ability to compete at the highest level and win. In response, President Kennedy outlined a bold vision: the first man on the moon would be an American. Kennedy’s challenge inspired our nation and motivated us to action.

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Today, as our children in the classroom are falling behind their counterparts around the world, people are again wondering whether we can compete. Make no mistake about it; America now faces two great challenges — India and China. A decade ago, it was better to be a C student in Boston than an A student in Beijing. Today, it is not.

Since we are failing to educate our students, we are falling behind in the global economy — and we have been for a long time. American taxpayers are currently spending well over $10,000 per student, and we continue to lose ground. This is affecting the college level as well, because our universities have to “dumb down” to receive what’s coming out of our public education system.

If we as a nation are to continue our historic leadership on this global stage, we will need a revamped education system that encourages innovation and gives our students the tools to compete and win.

For over forty years, the federal government has been sending money to the states. It is no coincidence that the beginning of the decline in our education system corresponds with the increased role of the federal government.

The problem is that decades of a Washington-knows-best, federalized approach has left American children far behind other industrialized nations. According to a 2006 Department of Education report, American students are falling well behind their international peers. In math,
U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 21st out of students from 28 countries. In science, U.S. students ranked 16th.

Rather than streamlining our education system and allowing our students to excel, No Child Left Behind has created new burdens that worsen the obstacles local school-systems face. While No Child Left Behind made important first steps in measuring the progress our schools are making, we must begin to trim back the exhaustive list of unnecessary federal regulations the bill imposed.

So tangled is this federally-imposed bureaucratic web that the Congressional Budget Office recently reported that state and local education officials in 2006 were forced to log an additional 6.7 million work hours of record-keeping, reporting, and third-party disclosure. Administrators are developing a “compliance mentality,” and each additional hour devoted to cumbersome federal paperwork is an hour not devoted to our children.

It is time to reject this unworkable system.

I have worked with Senator John Cornyn of Texas to introduce the A PLUS Academic Achievement for All Act to make sure parents and children, not politicians and bureaucrats, are the beneficiaries in our education system. Our bill would finally provide states with the flexibility needed to achieve better student performance.

Our legislation would give states relief from the burdensome regulations of No Child Left Behind. States would continue to be held accountable for the academic results they achieve for their students, but they would have flexibility in how they achieve those results. Across the nation, states and local schools have different needs, and they know how best to allocate resources. When it comes to educating our children, one size never fits all.

As we reauthorize No Child Left Behind, we must give states autonomy in exchange for accountability. Congress should seize this important opportunity and unshackle states and local schools to create new opportunities for our students to learn and achieve. By taking this step, we will once again entrust teachers, parents, and students with the decision-making power needed to succeed.

Every parent knows that a one-size-fits-all approach to education limits our children and exasperates our teachers. We cannot continue to degrade the work force of the future that is so vital to America’s leadership in the global marketplace.

We didn’t make it to the moon by allowing politicians and bureaucrats to regulate the way. The government helped provide the vision, not the methods. It was the creativity and innovation of the American people that achieved the goal. It’s time to reach for the stars again and allow local schools the freedom to be the best they can be. If we do this, I am confident that future generations of American students will continue to secure America’s role as leader in the global marketplace.

  Senator Jim DeMint represents the state of South Carolina.



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