A Conservative Alternative to No Child Left Behind

As a presidential candidate in 2000, George W. Bush proposed an education plan that focused on local control of schools. But a year later, after going through the congressional sausage machine, Bush’s proposal had morphed into something entirely different.

Now five years old, the No Child Left Behind Act once again finds itself center stage in Congress. Today Sen. Teddy Kennedy (D.-Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D.-Calif.) host a joint hearing on reauthorizing the law. Witnesses range from Reg Weaver of National Education Association to former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, co-chairman of the Commission on No Child Left Behind.

Liberals such as Kennedy and Miller will doubtless urge spending more federal money on education — despite the fact that federal spending has risen an unprecedented 25% under NCLB. But soon a conservative alternative will enter the debate. It’s called the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act, nicknamed A-PLUS.

Senators John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) and Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) and Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R.-Mich.) will introduce A-PLUS on Thursday. Earlier this year at The Heritage Foundation, DeMint said the bill will offer states greater flexibility in meeting the bureaucratic requirements of No Child Left Behind. He compared it to the approach used successfully with welfare reform — letting states serve as laboratories of change.

“No Child Left Behind started with some good ideas, but what Congress didn’t mess up, the bureaucracy has messed up,” said DeMint, who voted against the law while serving in the House in 2001. “There is so much absurdity now within No Child Left Behind that it’s going to be difficult to tweak it and fix it. We need to look at a way to allow states to get out of it in a way that would let them do it responsibly.”

Conservatives see the bill as an opportunity to establish clear-cut priorities that return more power to local schools and reduce Washington’s involvement in education.

Given the weakened political position of conservatives, it might not appear that A-PLUS has much of a chance. But five years of No Child Left Behind has left even the law’s former supporters apprehensive about reauthorizing it in its present form — much less plowing even greater sums into the program “as is.”

Consider House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R.-Mo.). One of the most prominent supporters of No Child Left Behind five years ago, Blunt now has buyer’s remorse. In running for his leadership post last November, Blunt called it the one vote he wished he could have back.

“Now my view is that any time you can solve the problem closer to where the problem is, you’re going to have a better solution,” Blunt said. “Particularly with elementary and secondary education, the focus ought to be on moms and dads and local school districts if kids are in public school, not on Washington, D.C., or even in state capitals. You need to be always looking as to how you have those decisions closer to home.”

Blunt’s sentiments are felt not only by members of Congress, but also parents and teachers across America who, after five years of No Child Left Behind, are yearning for greater flexibility and less bureaucracy.