Politics & Policy

Take Back Our Schools

(Photographerlondon/Dreamstime)
The Student Success Act would end 'big-government conservatism' in education

Fifteen years ago, when today’s high-school seniors were in pre-school, presidential candidate George W. Bush proposed that America “leave no child behind.” His call for an aggressive federal role in education in order to close long-lasting and harmful achievement gaps was the centerpiece of his “compassionate conservative” agenda. It built on his successful record as an education-reform governor in Texas and also indicated to moderate independents, especially women, that he was a different kind of Republican, the kind who cared about kids and schools.

Giving credit where it’s due, President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) did quite a lot of good, especially for America’s lowest-performing students. Low-income, African-American, and Latino students are scoring two to three grade levels higher today than their peers did in the 1990s, and graduation rates are at all-time highs. Aggressive policies based around testing and accountability – as embodied in NCLB – deserve much praise.

Yet this aggressive federal role in education also brought pernicious side effects. These include an overemphasis on testing; an inability to respond nimbly when problems with implementation became clear; and accountability systems that often labeled the wrong schools as successful and failing.

Nor was the 2002 version of NCLB the apex of federal overreach in education. In fact, the George W. Bush years look like a libertarian’s dream compared with the Obama era.

With $4 billion in Race to the Top funds, President Obama forced states into a cramped Procrustean bed of his design. To compete for the money, states had to follow a prescriptive playbook that included the Common Core state standards, a test-score-based approach to teacher evaluations, and much more.

The Obama team doubled down on this approach a few years later when it offered waivers to states to exempt them from the most unworkable requirements of NCLB. But the conditions they attached to the waivers were clearly illegal and also made for bad policy.

Thankfully, this era of federal overreach in education might finally be coming to a close. That’s because Republicans in Congress have had enough of big-government conservatism and are demanding that bureaucrats stop micromanaging our schools from Washington.

The tip of the spear is the Student Success Act, H.R. 5, an education bill currently moving through Congress that would rein in NCLB. As my colleague Chester Finn has written, it represents the most conservative move in federal education policy in at least a quarter century.

In every important way, it limits Washington’s role and gives states the authority that they had before the George W. Bush era. It puts states back in the driver’s seat on issues including the standards that outline expectations in the classroom, the tests that would measure student achievement in relation to those standards, the ways schools are judged based on those tests, and the interventions that states and communities will use in schools that don’t measure up. It would also get the federal government out of the business of regulating the credentials that teachers must possess in order to enter the classroom. And it would eliminate dozens of ineffective federal programs.

What’s particularly striking is the distance between the Republican plan to fix NCLB and the Democrats’ desire to expand the federal role even more. Their wish list includes getting Uncle Sam into the business of equalizing school dollars, prescribing (and using federal tax dollars to pay for) particular approaches to preschool, and pushing schools around on such sensitive topics as discipline.

It’s true that some House conservatives believe the Student Success Act doesn’t go far enough to undo the mischief. I appreciate their commitment to minimizing the federal role in education. But even they acknowledge that the federal money isn’t going away; there just isn’t the political support to eliminate it entirely (and helping poor kids learn more remains a worthy national goal).

Since the money isn’t going to go away, the real question for Republicans is whether they should simply send it to the public-education blob with no obligation regarding what it’s to be used for and whether it produces any results. That approach seems wrong on both the merits and the politics.

The right approach is the one embraced by the Student Success Act: shrink the federal role, demand transparency around results, reduce the authority of the secretary of education, and put states, communities, parents, and teachers back in charge again.

— Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He served in the George W. Bush administration.

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