A New Bipartisan Education Bill Curbs Obama-Era Overreach

Elementarys school students in Ellicott City, Md. (Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty)

Last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who is soon to depart, gave a swan-song address in Boston. Recounting a tenure spent treating the U.S. Department of Education like a national school board, he took special pains to celebrate four federal adventures: the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, its dubious new $6 billion School Improvement Grant program, his attempts to micro-manage teacher evaluation in the states via waivers from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, and his efforts to push states to adopt the Common Core standards.

This afternoon, House and Senate negotiators will sit down to finalize the conference bill that would replace No Child Left Behind. To understand how profoundly the bill shrinks the federal role, one need only ask what it means for the overreaching, progressives-at-play education legacy of Obama and Duncan. Race to the Top? Gone. School Improvement Grants? Gone. Federal bureaucrats no longer have the ability to dictate to states on teacher policy. And, when it comes to the Common Core, federal officials are henceforth barred from “encouraging” or “incentivizing” states to adopt certain standards.

Indeed, one can read the bill as a massive, bipartisan repudiation of the Obama administration’s Washington-centric education excesses. More fundamentally, the bill is an important victory for principled, limited government even as it addresses practical concerns about over-testing and ill-conceived federal mandates.

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The conference bill eliminates NCLB’s ludicrous mandate that schools make “adequate yearly progress” toward 100 percent proficiency. It does retain the requirement that states — in return for federal Title I funds — test students in grades three through eight once a year in reading and math and again in high school, and that they test students in science once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school. 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. This is a principled stance. Conservatives should be the party of transparency and citizen-fueled accountability, not of unaccountable federal largesse.

Arne Duncan’s high-handed, capricious leadership so appalled Republicans and Democrats that they agreed on remarkable new constraints on his office.

The wins are noteworthy. The final bill includes remarkable language curtailing the power of the secretary of education to influence what states or communities do. (Duncan’s high-handed, capricious leadership so appalled Republicans and Democrats that they agreed on remarkable new constraints on his office. Word is that Duncan and his acolytes are bitter about this.) The bill eliminates a number of programs while block-granting billions in funds for teacher quality and school improvement. It provides generous support for charter schools. It strips the federal bureaucrats of the authority to second-guess or reject state accountability systems and improvement strategies. It repeals NCLB’s “highly qualified teacher” mandate, a bureaucratic paper chase whose most significant accomplishment was lending fuel to lawsuits attacking Teach for America.

Now, the bill is far from perfect. In reaching a bipartisan deal that this president would sign, lawmakers had to compromise.  The final bill drops House language that would have made Title 1 funds portable to public schools (for instance, by allowing those dollars to follow low-income students to district or charter schools). It codifies in statute the childhood-development grant program, a $250 million Obama initiative that had existed only as an appropriation line. And it retains more of the accountability architecture of NCLB than would have been ideal.

#share#Even these concessions have their consolations, however. There’s no Title I portability, but advocates of school choice did get a weighted student-funding pilot program that allows up to 50 school districts the ability to combine their federal, state, and local dollars into a backpack of cash that follows a student to his public school (district or charter) of choice. The childhood-development grant program is a modest concession, especially given that it was a must-have for the Democrats. It’s a small program, supports only state coordination of services, is housed at the Department of Health and Human Services (not the Department of Education), and is funded only with dollars that Congress has already allocated for the program. The bill does retain the broad strokes of federal accountability, but it ends the prescriptiveness and required federal approval that made NCLB so problematic. Determinations of what accountability systems entail and how to intervene in low-performing schools will rest entirely with the states.

The Obama spin machine and the mainstream media (sorry for the repetition) will doubtless scramble to portray the deal as an Obama triumph. And the bill is likely to win the support of most congressional Democrats, as well as the teachers’ unions. All this will rightly give conservatives pause. But the White House is spinning, Capitol Hill Democrats are nearly as frustrated as Republicans with federal meddling in schools, and the unions have legitimate gripes with what Washington has done under Bush and Obama.

#related#This is a victory that even comes with a hedge. What if a conservative wins the White House next year? By design, the bill is re-authorized for just four years rather than the more usual six. This means it will be up for reauthorization in 2019. If president Rubio, Cruz, or Carson wants to build on this win, he will be free to do so.

The bill is a profound improvement on existing law and the NCLB-excused mischief of the Obama years. It marks a stark and happy reversal of fortune in an area where Washington has been over-extending its reach for more than a decade. It answers practical concerns about over-testing and clumsy federal mandates and strikes a ringing blow for the principle of limited government. This is a good, principled bill; it’s a notable conservative victory, and it’s the best deal to be had. It deserves conservative support.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Max Eden is program manager for education policy at AEI.


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