Politics & Policy

The APLUS Alternative to Reauthorizing No Child Left Behind

Conservatives have a chance to wrest control of education policy from the federal government. Will they take it?

The Academic Partnerships Lead Us To Success (APLUS) proposal, referenced on the NRO homepage this morning by AEI’s Max Eden and Michael McShane, has long been part of the conservative vision for restoring state and local control of education. There have been various iterations of the plan over the years, including the 2013 version offered by Rob Bishop (R., Utah), which the AEI authors mentioned this morning.

More recently, conservatives have been working to ensure that similar opt-out clauses are contained in any reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, which is currently under consideration in the House. Congressmen Mark Walker (R-N.C.) and Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) have offered a version of APLUS as an amendment for consideration to the Student Success Act. Previous APLUS proposals have provided a variety of mechanisms by which states could inform the Department of Education of their decision to opt-out of NCLB. The current language requires that the Department of Education allow states to completely opt-out of NCLB if they so choose, by making what’s known as a “declaration of intent.”

That’s a critical component of the policy. The Education Department does not have veto power over these declarations; they’re not like a waiver which can be approved or disapproved depending on the whims of federal bureaucrats. The APLUS proposal allows states to opt-out, no strings attached, as long as a state’s declaration agrees to adhere to federal civil rights laws and work to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged students (the original purpose of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). End of story.

The only other information a declaration must include is which (any or all) of the programs encompassed by NCLB the state wants to opt-out of (so that it can receive its education funding back). It’s about as straightforward as you can get. APLUS puts education policy on a path toward being completely devolved from the federal government back to states and localities.

That’s a path toward actual limits on federal intervention in education, unlike the current rewrite of NCLB. Although the 620-page Student Success Act makes some improvements to the mandates that currently exist in NCLB — Adequate Yearly Progress and Highly Qualified Teacher mandates are eliminated, for example — as it stands, absent the ability for states to completely opt out of the law, it represents a missed opportunity for conservatives.

The authors conclude that “if the goal is to reduce the imprint of the federal government — as it should be — then conservatives would be well advised to pass a law while they have majorities.” I disagree. I think the goal should be to put forward genuine conservative alternatives.

And by that standard, the current proposal falls short. It is a 620-page bill that mandates the same annual testing structures as NCLB, doesn’t reduce spending in any significant way, confuses program consolidation with program elimination — for the most part, it only eliminates programs that haven’t been funded in years — and doesn’t include Title I portability to private schools of choice.

Unlike the 10-page APLUS policy, the 620 pages of NCLB rewrite will maintain the ever-growing tentacles of the federal government in local school policy, at a time when conservatives have an opportunity to completely change course.

Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation.

NR Staff — Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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