Left vs. Right on Education

In every legislative struggle, ideological boundaries inevitably emerge. Factions of conservative and liberal lawmakers and their allies define the right and left walls of the debate. The forthcoming battle over the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB)—President Bush’s signature education reform—is no exception.

Five years after its passage, the frustration with NCLB has grown and spans the ideological spectrum. In 2006, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget, state and local education bureaucrats spent 6.7 million hours and more than $140 million complying with NCLB paperwork. This has angered just about everyone—state lawmakers, state and local education officials, teachers’ unions, parents and education policy experts on both the left and the right.

Criticism From the States

Legislatures in states such as Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico and Virginia passed resolutions criticizing NCLB’s rigid testing and proficiency requirements. Colorado and Utah clarified that their education laws take precedence over those enacted in Washington. School districts even forfeited federal funds rather than comply with NCLB.

Last year, the National Education Association reported that 69% of its members found fault with NCLB. At the other end of the ideological spectrum, conservative education reformers believe it is time to reestablish the natural pre-eminent role for parents, states and localities in the education of our children.

With committee hearings underway and the legislative process set to begin, let’s examine the contours of the debate.

The Left Wall: Rep. George Miller (D.-Calif.) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D.-Mass.), who chair the House and Senate education committees, personify the liberal view. They seek to exponentially increase the level of federal education funding, as well as its reach. Kennedy wants to increase the salaries of principals and teachers, extend the school day, and saturate schools with AmeriCorps volunteers, parent-family outreach coordinators, and “community programs that address children’s social, emotional and other non-academic needs.”

On NCLB, Kennedy believes that “President Bush … short-changed the promise made in the law by nearly $56 billion” and wants Congress to make up this alleged shortfall through increased spending. (Reality check: Between 2001 and 2006 federal spending on No Child Left Behind programs jumped by 33%, from $17.4 billion in 2001 to $23.3 billion in 2007. There was no commensurate increase in student test scores.)

The Bush Administration: NCLB gets high marks from the administration. “There’s not much needed in the way of change,” Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said. Comparing NCLB to Ivory soap, she added: “It’s 99.9% pure.”

To its credit, the Bush Administration has continued to push for the principle of expanding parental choice but has done so within the existing framework of No Child Left Behind. The administration has proposed $4,000 “promise scholarships” for children trapped in schools that have missed state benchmarks consecutively for five or more years. Sadly, hundreds of thousands of children would qualify. Rep. Buck McKeon (Calif.), the senior Republican on the House Education Committee, is championing the administration’s proposal.

The Right Wall: To Capitol Hill conservatives, the alternative to No Child Left Behind requires reviving the principles of federalism and limited government. Senators Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) and John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) and Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R.-Mich.) introduced far-reaching legislation last week that could eventually garner bipartisan support and fundamentally alter the NCLB debate.

Known as the “Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success” or A-PLUS Act, it would let states opt out of the current regulatory morass of federal education programs and into a simplified contractual arrangement with Uncle Sam. States would be allowed to consolidate most of their federal K-12 funds and focus them on state-directed initiatives. States would use their own well-developed testing systems to evaluate student progress and make the results fully transparent to parents and taxpayers.

“Our idea would allow states to enter voluntarily into a charter agreement or contract with the U.S. Department of Education, to let state and local authorities identify their education needs and priorities,” Cornyn said. “A state will have the flexibility to consolidate federal education programs and funding, and redirect resources to reform initiatives developed at the state level.”

The House plan received an unexpectedly robust level of support—52 original sponsors, including Republican Whip Roy Blunt (R.-Mo.). Senators Sam Brownback (R.-Kan.), Mel Martinez (R.-Fla.) and Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.) also sponsored it.

That could spell bad news for Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Miller—and others hoping to continue down the path of greater federal involvement in education.