Conservatives on Capitol Hill have openly rebelled against President Bush’s signature education initiative. Last week, they unveiled legislation that would let states opt out of many requirements of No Child Left Behind in order to pursue alternative, performance-based education strategies.
The revolt started brewing in early January, when Senators John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) and Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.), two of Bush’s biggest supporters, publicly dissected problems arising from the No Child Left Behind Act at the Heritage Foundation. Last week, the senators teamed with Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R.-Mich.) to introduce legislation known as A-PLUS (the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success) Act.
The trio has already rounded up more than 50 House co-sponsors of the bill, including two members of the GOP leadership: Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (Va.). In the Senate, Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) has signed on, along with Sen. Sam Brownback (R.-Kan.), a 2008 presidential candidate, and Sen. Mel Martinez (R.-Fla.), who serves as general chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The legislation challenges the “unworkable status quo of No Child Left Behind,” said a spokesman for DeMint, who believes the five-year-old education law is a “one-size-fits-all federal approach” that often hampers, rather than assists, local school districts. The underlying goal of A-PLUS is to reduce the federal government’s role in education and eliminate the bureaucracy resulting from No Child Left Behind.
When No Child Left Behind was signed into law five years ago, an overwhelming majority in Congress hailed the measure. But conservative members remained silent. They were concerned that the President’s original proposal, which focused on local control of schools, had morphed into something entirely different after making its way through the congressional sausage machine.
Now five years old, the No Child Left Behind Act is once again center stage in Congress. Last week, Sen. Teddy Kennedy (D.-Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D.-Calif.) hosted a joint hearing on reauthorizing the law.
Liberals such as Kennedy and Miller urge spending more federal money on education — despite the fact that federal spending has risen an unprecedented 25% under NCLB. Hearing frustration back home from parents and teachers, conservatives know that throwing even more money at the problem wouldn’t solve anything.
In his Heritage Foundation speech, DeMint said the A-PLUS bill would 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,” DeMint said. “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 Blunt, who in 2001 was one of the most prominent supporters of No Child Left Behind. Today, he 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 shared not only by members of Congress, but also by parents and teachers across America who, after five years of No Child Left Behind, yearn for greater flexibility and less bureaucracy.