Politics & Policy

Here’s the Right Way for Conservatives to Start Fixing No Child Left Behind

The Student Success Act rolls back regulations while reflecting the need for a principled, limited federal role in schools.

On Friday, the U.S. House will vote on the Student Success Act (H.R. 5). The bill would revamp the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act (formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). It’s a promising bill and one that deserves the enthusiastic support of conservatives.

The Student Success Act (SSA) jettisons NCLB’s invasive system of federally mandated accountability and gives states the freedom to gauge school performance and decide what to do about poor-performing schools. It also puts an end to NCLB’s remarkable requirement that, as of 2014, 100 percent (!) of the nation’s students would be “proficient” in reading and math.

The SSA repeals the “highly qualified teacher” mandate, a bureaucratic paper chase whose most significant accomplishment was lending fuel to lawsuits attacking Teach For America (litigants had some success in California’s courts by arguing that TFA teachers failed to meet the “highly qualified” standard). It eliminates or consolidates 65 programs. It includes expansive new language intended to finally stop federal officials from pushing states to adopt Common Core (or any other particular set of academic standards).

The SSA is school-choice-friendly. It boosts funding for charter schools. In a significant win, it allows Title I funds to follow low-income children to the district school or charter school of a parent’s choice. This is a big deal. It doesn’t allow private-school choice — which would be even better — but the votes simply aren’t there in the House (much less the Senate) to let Title I funds flow to private schools. Meanwhile, allowing those funds to follow children to charter schools would be an important precedent.

The Student Success Act requires that states continue to regularly assess students in reading, math, and science and publicly report the disaggregated results, to the chagrin of some conservatives — but that’s misguided. It’s not inconsistent for conservatives to want Washington out of the nation’s schools while still keeping an eye on what taxpayers are getting for their federal education dollar. Moreover, competitive federalism and educational choice benefit when parents, voters, and taxpayers have comparable data on school outcomes that can inform their decisions. Finally, shorn of NCLB’s pie-in-the-sky accountability mandates, once-a-year tests will no longer distort schooling and infuriate parents in the way they have in recent years. Conservatives should be the party of transparency and citizen-fueled accountability, not of unaccountable federal largesse.

The SSA also features a few improvements over a similar bill that House Republicans passed in 2013. It does away with a provision that would have extended a bill of Obama overreach and gotten Uncle Sam further involved in telling states how to evaluate teachers. Instead, the SSA does away with troubled federal efforts to dictate teacher training, giving states much more flexibility in determining how to use those funds to recruit, prepare, and support teachers.

The Student Success Act won’t get Uncle Sam “out” of education. But that’s okay. After all, there’s no alternative proposal that will truly get him out either. Even those who’ve called for abolishing the Department of Education have been unwilling to eliminate (or even seriously cut) federal funds for low-income students, students with special needs, Pell Grants, or student loans. And those programs combine to make up the lion’s share of what the federal government does in education. That disconnect means the calls for getting the feds “out” mostly amount to hollow rhetoric.

Moreover, there is a legitimate, limited federal role in schooling. From Lincoln’s Morrill Act in 1862, to Eisenhower’s 1958 post-Sputnik push, to Reagan’s 1983 call to arms in A Nation at Risk, we’ve recognized a national interest in schooling. But Washington should limit its involvement to those things that are appropriate to its appropriate role in our federal system. In this case, that particularly entails unwinding intrusive mandates, eliminating duplicative programs and red tape, and insisting on transparency when it comes to academic results and how federal tax dollars are spent.

The SSA would end Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s unprecedented and troubling use of waivers. While the secretary of education has the authority to “waive” various provisions of NCLB, Duncan has taken this routine discretion and abused it — herding states into adopting an Obama education agenda. States have felt intense pressure to comply, given their yearning for relief from NCLB’s astonishing mandate that, as of 2014, federally prescribed remedies would be imposed at any school where 100 percent of students aren’t “proficient” in reading and math. Duncan’s wish list has included race-based performance targets and a clear message that states will fare best if they stand by the Common Core. The Student Success Act would end the ability of Duncan, and of his successor, to engage in such shenanigans.

Finally, the SSA allows D.C. Republicans to say what they’re for when it comes to education and not just what they’re against. When conservatives simply insist that they want “to get Washington out of schools,” they tend to get outmaneuvered by reform-minded liberals who talk about equal opportunity and then roll out laundry lists of new educational programs to promote it.

The Student Success Act reflects a principled, limited federal role. It calls for states to regularly assess students, be transparent about their performance, and abide by sensible restrictions on the use of federal funds. At the same time, it rolls back federal regulations that have stymied schools and makes it easier for states to promote charter schools and public school choice. It deserves conservative support.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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