Time for an Alternative Education Plan

January 8 marks the fifth anniversary of President Bush’s signature education reform initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Soon, the new Democratic-controlled Congress will embark on the ninth federal foray into the world of elementary and secondary education. (The first came in 1965.)

Sadly, after four decades and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, it is hard to demonstrate how the federal government’s involvement in K-12 education has improved student achievement.

Increased funding for an ever-expanding menu of federal programs not only steered education policy to numerous dead-end education fads but caused state and local education officials to develop a “compliance mentality,” meaning they devoted too much time to adhering to federal regulatory requirements and not enough to delivering a quality education.

The No Child Left Behind Act started with the noblest of intentions. “I do not want to be the national principal,” President Bush said in 2000, “I believe in local control of schools.” Indeed, Bush’s first blueprint would have given state and local school bureaucracies more flexibility and held them accountable for student performance, as well as injected the ultimate form of accountability—giving parents the power to remove their children from failing schools and move them (and some federal funding) to a better school, be it public, private or religious.

But something happened on the way to the Rose Garden signing ceremony. At the insistence of senior congressional liberals such as Sen. Ted Kennedy (D.-Mass.) and George Miller (D.-Calif.), these key features of Bush’s plan were dropped or watered down. Plus, 1,100 pages of substantial new requirements were downloaded on state and local education agencies while taxpayers were asked to bear the brunt of a 26% increase (to $22 billion per year) in federal education funding.

After five years, it’s more apparent than ever that the federal government cannot force local school systems to expand parental choice. Of the 3.9 million students who were eligible to use the limited public school option in NCLB, for example, less than 1% successfully maneuvered through the maze of bureaucratic roadblocks erected by union-addled big-city school systems.

One thing rose significantly, however: the added regulatory burden. According to the Office of Management and Budget, in 2006 state and local education bureaucrats had to devote an additional 6.7 million hours to NCLB-inspired record-keeping, reporting and third-party disclosure.

Congress should return policy-making authority to state and local levels through the so-called “Charter-State Option.” This would allow every state to choose either the current briar patch of hundreds of federal programs, each with its own funding stream and unique set of detailed regulatory requirements, or a simplified contractual arrangement in which the state would have broad authority to consolidate its federal funds and refocus them on state-directed initiatives.

The charter-state option would restore greater federalism in education, allow state leaders to embrace innovative strategies according to their local needs, priorities and reform philosophy, and make them more directly responsible to parents and taxpayers.

Freedom for the States

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R.) offered the most succinct argument on behalf of the charter-state concept: “Though the federal contribution to education in Florida is small, only about 7% of total spending, it takes more than 40% of the state’s education staff to oversee and administer federal dollars.” In fact, he continued, federal regulatory requirements are so onerous that “six times as many people are required to administer a federal education dollar as are required [to administer] a state dollar.”

“Imagine,” he asked, “what our states could do if we could spend more of our time and energy working to improve student achievement, rather than tediously complying with a dizzying array of federal rules.”

On cue, Republican Senators Jim DeMint (S.C.) and John Cornyn (Tex.) will introduce legislation that embodies the state-charter approach.

Despite their conservative credentials, it would be a mistake to assume that the DeMint/Cornyn effort will languish in some conservative policy ghetto on Capitol Hill. After all, frustration with NCLB extends far and wide—from state and local education agencies frustrated by the law’s regulatory constraints to education reformers of all philosophical stripes who have essentially given up on Washington’s ability to leverage substantive education reforms.

Some states have passed resolutions protesting NCLB, others have risked losing federal funds by insisting that state education law take precedence over federal law. School districts have opted to forfeit federal funds rather than comply with NCLB, and a consortium of 14 states have banded together to assess NCLB’s regulatory burden.

If all this frustration galvanizes around a visionary alternative to NCLB such as the one proposed by DeMint and Cornyn, conservatives might have a horse in the next big education policy debate.