Beauprez Looks to the States to Move Beyond No Child Left Behind

It’s been said that everything old becomes new again. This is proving true in the federal education reform debate. A conservative congressman has introduced new legislation based on an old idea: local control over education.

On Thursday, Rep. Bob Beauprez (R.-Colo.) introduced the Partnership for Academic Success in the States Act, or PASS Act, to restore greater state and local control in education. With bipartisan frustration with No Child Left Behind growing, the PASS Act could garner support across the political spectrum.

The PASS Act would give up to ten states greater freedom and flexibility to control federal education spending without being tied down by the typical web of federal regulations. In exchange, the states would have to demonstrate improved academic achievement. And if a state reduces the achievement gap, it would receive a performance bonus from the federal government.

This makes sense. The federal government’s role would be reduced to a level commensurate with the 8.5 percent of education funding it supplies. States would be responsible for improving student outcomes while having the flexibility to choose the most appropriate policies for their needs.

For education reformers, Rep. Beauprez’s proposal should look familiar. It’s based on the Academic Achievement for All Act, known as the “Straight A’s” initiative, that gained widespread conservative support in the pre-No Child Left Behind era. Straight A’s would have given states the freedom to consolidate certain federal education programs and try out different reforms to boost academic achievement.

In the late 1990s, Straight A’s was popular on Capitol Hill and with state policymakers across the country. The House of Representatives passed a pilot-project version of Straight A’s for ten states (similar to the PASS Act) in late 1999. Prominent supporters included House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Unfortunately, the Straight A’s initiative never gained sufficient traction in the Senate. After the congressional debate over No Child Left Behind, proposals based on Straight A’s were all but forgotten.

But four years after the passage of No Child Left Behind, the time is right to return to the idea of greater state and local control in education. Rep. Beauprez’s PASS Act will appeal to those who are dissatisfied with No Child Left Behind-conservatives and liberals alike. For conservatives, the PASS Act represents a welcome exit strategy from today’s unprecedented federal authority in local education. For liberals, the PASS Act could end the federal government’s heavy-handed approach to enforcing public school accountability.

Thankfully, the PASS Act isn’t just good politics. It’s good policy. The PASS Act recognizes federal bureaucrats’ limited ability to implement changes that will actually improve learning for the fifty million children in public schools across the nation. The PASS Act would begin to transfer power from distant bureaucrats to local authorities, such as state policymakers, local school leaders, and parents–those best positioned to identify students’ needs.

Education reformers across the political spectrum should welcome the opportunity that the PASS Act would give them. State and local policymakers would have to innovate and implement new reforms. No two states would have the same strategy. For example, a more conservative state could implement school choice reforms to create new options for parents and introduce competition into the public education system. A more liberal state might decide to reduce class sizes and boost spending on traditional public schools.

The important thing is that local communities could tailor policy solutions to meet the specific needs of their children. As this happens, parents, teachers, and lawmakers will be able to look to neighboring states to study promising reform strategies that might work locally.

As Congress begins work on reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, education reformers on both sides of the aisle should think creatively about how to move beyond No Child Left Behind to let the most promising local solutions flourish. Restoring federalism in American education is a good place to start.