Politics & Policy

A Good Start on Schools


Almost a decade and a half after No Child Left Behind, it’s clear that American education policy has failed to make the grade. But now the House has passed, and the Senate is preparing to pass, a bill that will rein in the federal government’s overweening control of education policy and return much control to states and school districts. The Every Child Achieves Act (in the House, the Every Student Succeeds Act) is an opportunity for significant educational reform.

Before the George W. Bush administration, billions of dollars in education spending were doled out by the federal government with no accountability. The theory behind Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act was that the federal government could catalyze school reform by demanding that federal monies yield quantifiable results in educational performance. We opposed that legislation, in part because we did not believe the federal government should try to play this role. And indeed, evidence that education has improved has been thin. Nevertheless, federal control over education policy has expanded — first slowly under Bush, and then rapidly under President Obama.

No Child Left Behind required that every student be testing at or above grade level in reading and math by 2014, and required that states build accountability systems around those utopian performance targets. Predictably, school districts failed in large numbers to meet their goals — at which time the federal government stepped in to direct the states on how to improve performance. Furthermore, schools that failed to meet targets often faced a cascade of sanctions. Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, waived those sanctions for states that adopted the administration’s preferred policies.

#share#Cause and effect are always difficult to map clearly, but the results of a federal education takeover are reasonably clear: In October, the semi-annual National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “nation’s report card,” showed student progress in mathematics flatlining for the first time in 20 years, and reading scores dropping for the first time in a decade.

The Every Child Achieves Act would help to get the federal government out of the education-micromanagement business. Our ideal policy would go even further in this direction, but it’s a good start: The federal government would maintain performance standards, but offer more ways for schools to meet them than the current regimen of tests. It would also eliminate the rigid “adequate yearly progress” requirement, which haunts teachers and administrators, along with the “highly qualified teacher” provision, which keeps competent teachers out of the classroom for a lack of proper licensing. Perhaps most important, while states will still be required to identify low-performing schools, how they get those schools up to snuff will be up to them and the school districts, not to Washington.

#related#The law would put other constraints on the federal government, among them checks on the secretary of education’s liberal regulatory powers — used and abused to educators’ and administrators’ despair under Duncan — and language reinforcing existing prohibitions that keep the Department of Education from insinuating itself into curriculum decisions in charter schools.

The bill is not perfect. In places it has vague language that seems to invite federal meddling; it establishes a new early-childhood program championed by Democratic senator Patty Murray (Wash.); and it does not provide Title I portability, which would have allowed federal money intended to help low-income students to follow them to the school of their choice.

Even so, it would entail a significant deregulation of American education, helping return crucial education decisions to the governments and individuals best equipped to make them. After 15 years of federal mismanagement, it’s time to reform a flunking policy.