Three Paths on Education Reform

This month marked the fifth anniversary of President Bush’s signing No Child Left Behind. How the Bush Administration, liberals, and conservatives marked NCLB’s birthday provides a window into important divisions that may occur during the law’s approaching reauthorization.

The Bush Administration’s strategy for reauthorization can be characterized as middle of the road. Beyond unveiling a new “No Child Left Behind” logo, the Bush Administration marked the anniversary by offering a few recommendations for continuing down the current path.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings outlined this position in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “I’ve worked in policymaking for 20 years, and I’ve yet to see a perfect law — especially one as far reaching as this one. But the core principles of NCLB are as strong and sound as they were five years ago. As we move forward with reauthorization, we must preserve these principles while improving the law.”

Bush sought to build bipartisan support for the Administration’s position by inviting Democrat and Republican congressional leaders to the White House. “In our discussion today,” the President explained, “we’ve all agreed to work together to address some of the major concerns that some people have on this piece of legislation, without weakening the essence of the bill, and get a piece of legislation done.”

While the spirit of bipartisanship was apparent at the White House meeting, Sen. Teddy Kennedy (D.-Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D.-Calif.) sharply criticized the existing law that same day. They seek a different path for education policy. This second path for reform bends sharply to the left, and consists primarily of a dramatic increase in federal spending on education.

Spending on No Child Left Behind programs has increased by more than 25 percent since 2001. But both Democrats insisted that the law remains under-funded. Beyond calling for significant spending increases, Senator Kennedy reiterated his call to add new federal programs to No Child Left Behind. For example, Senator Kennedy wants the federal government to assist in school construction and help put social workers into low-income schools.

The road bending left hits another serious fork. While Kennedy and Miller appear committed to maintaining NCLB’s accountability standards, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) criticized the law’s strong accountability requirements arguing that these “measures have proven far too punitive, and states have been given little flexibility in implementing the law’s requirements.” This suggests that liberal policymakers will have to choose between following either Kennedy or Reid.

Conservatives marked the NCLB anniversary by offering a third road for education reform — one that leads to greater state control. At a Heritage Foundation forum, Senators John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) and Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) unveiled a new plan, “Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success,” known as the “A PLUS Act.” The Cornyn-DeMint plan would return education policymaking authority to the states.

Under A PLUS, states would have the freedom to opt out of current federal programs and paperwork. State leaders would decide how best to use federal education funds to improve student achievement while maintaining state-level student testing and making results available to parents and the public.

This conservative path would put our education system on the road to greater innovation. “You can’t have quality development with a top-down approach,” explained DeMint. “It’s time to change the way we’re thinking about this because it’s not working.”

Cornyn agreed that the best new approach would be “moving decision-making power out of Washington and closer to parents and teachers.” He also explained that A PLUS “will require results … but it won’t be so focused on process.”

As No Child Left Behind’s reauthorization approaches, Members of Congress face three very different choices for education. They can continue down the same path on No Child Left Behind, as the Bush Administration urges. Or, they can turn to the left — following Kennedy or Reid toward more federal spending and more federal programs for education — with or without strict public school accountability. Or they can follow conservatives to the right toward less federal power and greater state control of education policy.

The different paths members choose should shape their colleagues’ positions. If, for example, most liberals follow Kennedy or Reid toward even greater new federal subsidies for education, conservatives on Capitol Hill would likely have little reason to follow the Bush Administration’s strategy to protect the status quo version of the law. That could shift the entire debate rightward — toward less federal power and greater state control.