The State of Federal Education Policy

In his State of the Union address, President Bush spoke in broad themes to outline his education agenda for the next two years. The bottom line: The Administration wants to “strengthen” the status quo version of No Child Left Behind in its coming congressional reauthorization. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has already stated that the administration has been studying ways to “perfect or tweak” NCLB.

After five years, it’s become increasingly clear that No Child Left Behind — like previous federal reform attempts — will not fundamentally improve public education in America. While NCLB dramatically increased federal authority, the federal government (thankfully) is still only a minority partner in public education, with only 8.5 percent of funding for schools coming from Congress.

Policymakers should remember that past administrations and Congresses have sought to use the lever of federal power in education to improve student achievement and reduce the achievement gap since 1965. But after four decades and hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending, the federal government has proven unable to bring about big improvements in America’s schools. For example, since the early 1970s, little has changed in long-term measures of student performance.

As Congress prepares to consider the ninth reauthorization of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it’s time to draw some conclusions from these long-term trends and reconsider the federal government’s role in education.

For starters, families, taxpayers, and school officials should question whether the federal government has been a good partner in education all these years. In 2006, taxpayers paid more than $24 billion to the Internal Revenue Service to fund programs for No Child Left Behind. In exchange, the Department of Education uses that funding to play the role of a heavy-handed middleman.

After keeping a sizeable chunk of money to pay for administration, the Department sends that money back to states and local education agencies along with a blizzard of mandates, red tape, and bureaucratic reporting requirements. For example, the Office of Management and Budget found that No Child Left Behind alone increased the paperwork costs due to federal education programs by 6,688,814 hours, or $140 million.

Beyond this wasteful bureaucratic burden, the federal government’s role in education exacts huge opportunity costs. Were it not for the Department of the Education, states and local communities would have more than $24 billion per year in additional funding that could be used for other purposes, such as locally controlled programs that direct resources to classrooms.

Perhaps the costs of the federal government’s “middle man” relationship would be the justified if Congress and the 4,500 workers at the U.S. Department of Education proved that they have a formula for improving student performance in America’s 96,000 public schools. Unfortunately, a forty-year track-record shows this isn’t the case. Rather than travel further down the current road of federal education policy, the Bush Administration and Members of Congress have a responsibility to reassess whether the federal government’s current role in education is justified.

A promising alternative strategy would be to begin restoring state and local control in education, while maintaining true transparency in measuring student performance at the school level. Senators Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) and John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) recently announced their support for such a proposal.

The DeMint-Cornyn plan — called the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success or “A-PLUS” Act — would allow states to opt-out of No Child Left Behind. These states would enter into a contractual agreement with the federal government, under which they would be free to control federal education funding and use it however state leaders believe would improve student achievement and assist disadvantaged students. In exchange, states would maintain performance transparency by measuring student achievement through state-directed assessments.

The DeMint-Cornyn plan has three important benefits. First, the amount of tax-dollars wasted on administrative costs and bureaucratic paperwork would be greatly reduced. More funding would be available for productive purposes, such as increasing resources in the classroom.

Second, states and local communities could innovate and try new approaches to improve student learning. Some states could try improving educational opportunities with policies that introduce competition into public education through school choice or performance pay for teachers; other communities may decide to pay teachers more or create new early education programs. Since transparency would be maintained, communities could learn what approaches work best.

Third, the Cornyn-DeMint plan would put an end to the idea that politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. have a one-size-fits-all solution that will fix all our educational problems. Instead, this plan would shift the responsibility for improving American education back to where it belongs — among parents, teachers, school leaders, and local representatives.

The coming reauthorization of No Child Left Behind offers Congress and the American people an opportunity to rethink the federal government’s role in education. One thing should be clear by now: continuing down the same path isn’t the answer.

This is the first of a two-part series responding to the education ideas outlined in the State of the Union Address.