Educational Freedom in the Wake of No Child Left Behind

In the 1990s, Republicans on Capitol Hill argued that improving education in America would require moving dollars and decision-making authority back to those closest to students. For too long, Washington’s inefficient and ineffective education policies had sidetracked the momentum of reform.

In 2007, many of those efforts seem like a distant memory. But the spirit of state, local, and parental empowerment was alive and well on Wednesday afternoon at a public forum at The Heritage Foundation.

Congressman Pete Hoekstra (R–MI) and Bob Schaffer, a former congressman and current Vice Chair of the Colorado State Board of Education, delivered remarks geared toward restoring conservative principles in the federal education debate.

Conservatives in the 1990s, Rep. Hoekstra said, “were winning. We were moving toward state control, local control, empowering parents, empowering local communities to design their education system.” In 1998, for example, the House Education Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which Rep. Hoekstra chaired, published “Education at Crossroads: What Works and What’s Wasted in Education Today,” which reported the findings of extensive investigations and field hearings across the nation.

The Crossroads report documented the scope of the federal role in education. It identified 760 federal education programs scattered across 39 different government agencies costing taxpayers more than $100 billion annually. It reported that the Department of Education required over 48.6 billion hours of paperwork each year – enough to keep 25,000 full-time employees busy all year. It also found that as little as 65 to 70 cents of each federal dollar for education actually reaches the classroom.

Based on these findings, the subcommittee recommended reforms that would empower parents, return policymaking control to the state and local level, and streamline the federal bureaucracy and eliminate wasteful programs. One outcome of this effort was legislation called the Academic Achievement for All Act, or “Straight A’s.” This measure, introduced in both houses of Congress, would have allowed states to opt out of existing federal education programs and consolidate or redirect federal funding toward state-level initiatives. An amended version of the bill, allowing ten states such freedom, passed the House of Representatives in 1999. But the effort stalled in the Senate.

In 2001, as the No Child Left Behind debate began, both Rep. Hoekstra and Rep. Schaffer were optimistic about advancing conservative principles. But the bill that emerged from the legislative process was one that significantly expanded federal power in education, departing from the conservative principles outlined in the Crossroads report. Hoekstra and Schaffer voted against it.

“The bottom line,” Mr. Hoekstra explained, was that “Republicans…sold out on our principles.”

“Our schools are no longer responsive to parents in their communities. They’re no longer responsible to the community at large,” Rep. Hoekstra explained. “They are now responsible to faceless bureaucrats in Lansing (Michigan)…and Washington, D.C.… The people who are driving our education system do not even know our kids.”

Mr. Hoekstra is equally disappointed by the direction of the impending reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. That’s why, he explained, he’s planning to offer an alternative to the status quo.

“We are going to allow states…to make the novel declaration that they will assume the primary responsibility for educating the kids of their state,” free from federal mandates. He announced his intention to introduce legislation next week.

As a member of the Colorado State Board of Education, Mr. Schaffer is now on the receiving end of federal rules and regulations. He echoed Rep. Hoekstra’s call for limiting the federal government’s role in directing education policy for schools across the nation.

Ultimately, said Mr. Schaffer, the key to unlocking widespread improvement in American education is expanding school choice: “Our goal in public education ought to be to provide the greatest amount of choice from a consumer standpoint…. The greatest amount of parental choice [will] drive down cost by virtue of competition…and improve quality dramatically. If you start treating teachers and administrators like real professionals, they will rise to the occasion.”

But this begins, according to Mr. Schaffer, by ending the trend toward greater centralization and federal power in education. For that reason, he applauded Mr. Hoekstra’s on-going efforts: “I’m glad to hear that there are at least a handful of people here in Congress who see what the problem is, and realize that the Founding Fathers had it right: a decentralized approach to this industry or any other industry is the best way to maintain our preeminence as a nation.”