For decades, conservatives have generally followed two principles when it comes to federal K–12 education policy: Respect state and local control of schools, and demand improved academic achievement in exchange for federal funds. Because of the Obama administration’s seven-year education overreach, the Right has rightly emphasized the first of those principles during the current debate over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the nation’s main K–12 law. (It’s also known as “No Child Left Behind,” the title of its last reauthorization.)
But we’ve paid too little attention to accountability. This could jeopardize the hard-fought progress made by previous leaders, including many conservatives, and turn this 50-year old law back into a directionless stream of federal funds with dubious influence on student learning.
Count me among the conservatives who are riled up that the Obama administration has dramatically expanded the federal role in schools. Our longstanding understanding that local and state leaders should lead on K–12 education has been replaced by Secretary Arne Duncan’s belief in a bold federal agenda backed by a federal “sense of urgency.” As a result, we’ve had a bossy Uncle Sam insert himself into Common Core, common assessments, teacher evaluations, and much more.
Conservative leaders understandably want to use the rewriting of ESEA to clip federal wings. But conservatives should guard against the impulse to overcorrect — to remove any semblance of a federal role in ensuring that billions in federal taxpayer dollars actually generate better results.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) became law nearly 14 years ago, and its excesses — such as federally mandated school ratings and interventions — are now routinely pilloried. So it’s easy to forget that the law was a response to 35 years of massive distributions of federal funds that came with entirely too little by way of outcomes.
When ESEA was first considered during the Great Society era, even liberal senator Robert F. Kennedy raised concerns about its lack of accountability. He noted that federal money alone wouldn’t improve student learning, arguing that school results had to be “tested and checked” by those funding it. President Nixon’s administration pushed for a federal assessment to track academic achievement and a federal body to study the link between federal funds and student learning.
President Reagan signed into law a reauthorization that increased accountability, including requiring assessments of student achievement. President George H. W. Bush proposed a system of tougher standards and tests. George W. Bush signed NCLB into law, which, while certainly going too far, helped link expenditures to outcomes — and, not incidentally, contributed to significant academic gains among disadvantaged kids.
We must remember that the hugely successful welfare-reform legislation of 1996 didn’t just block-grant funds to states. It also included meaningful accountability provisions: time limits on individual benefits, work requirements, child-support-enforcement rules, penalties for food-stamp violations, and more. For at least three reasons, it makes sense to have analogous guardrails and consequences with federal education funds.
First, the demand for more dollars is limitless. Local leaders love checks from Washington, and members of Congress love delivering them. Title I, the largest pot of ESEA funds, now distributes $15 billion annually, well over twice the initial appropriation after controlling for inflation.
Second, this money is distributed, by federal law, to districts automatically and by formula. State leaders don’t have the authority to use these funds strategically to accomplish state goals.
Third, schools are tied in knots by all sorts of state and local politics, union contracts, and regulations. Beltway insiders generally fail to appreciate the forces that conspire to ensure these funds support the status quo.
The pre-NCLB era taught us that these factors can combine to continuously expand the federal pot, which nevertheless fails to produce the results we want. Since virtually no one on Capitol Hill is arguing that federal K–12 spending should be cut off, conservatives must decide how that spending can best be put to good use.
We should continue efforts to scale back NCLB’s federal micromanagement so states can reclaim their role as education leaders and make decisions that meet their students’ needs. But we should also resist the temptation toward — or at least be mindful of the significant costs associated with — defining all accountability as micromanagement.
Two fates are to be avoided: our conservative successors’ looking back on this NCLB rewrite and asking, “How did they not end federal overreach?” And their looking back and asking, “How did they turn this law back into an unaccountable source of billions in federal funds?”
— Andy Smarick is a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and coauthor of a new report on ESEA, “Pacts Americana.” He served at the White House and U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush, as deputy education commissioner for Governor Christie, and as an aide to a Republican congressman and state legislators. He was recently appointed to the Maryland State Board of Education by Governor Larry Hogan.