Education Policy: Putting Congress to the Test

Posted: Sep 06, 2007 12:01 AM
Education Policy: Putting Congress to the Test

Visitors to the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., encounter a bit of ticky-tacky architecture when they enter the otherwise grand, white-marble building: They must pass through a façade that resembles the entrance of a little red schoolhouse. It’s probably the most ridiculous, oxymoronic (and moronic) structure in town. And just to make sure that folks feel all “folksy” as they enter, the phrase “No Child Left Behind” is emblazoned across the top. Some DOE genius seems to believe that if you force people to first walk through a little fake door of a fake neighborhood school, maybe they’ll ignore the fact that they have entered the belly of a bureaucratic beast. Heck, maybe they’ll even think they’re at Disneyworld.

This absurd structure symbolizes the problems of the “No Child Left Behind” era that local educators, students and parents are suffering through. The sappy name says one thing, but when you get inside, you see it’s just another failed government effort.

Lawmakers are considering whether to reauthorize NCLB, the Bush administration’s signature education reform. And while some of its intentions deserve praise -- specifically, the focus on reducing achievement gaps and ensuring that all children receive a quality education -- most aspects don’t make the grade. When President Bush agreed to change his NCLB draft to pacify Sen. Ted Kennedy, NCLB became yet another big-government recipe for disaster in an already failing school system.

Eugene Hickok knows. A former U.S. deputy secretary of education, he recently served as a Bradley education fellow at The Heritage Foundation. “Although fashioned with noble intentions, NCLB created a powerful perverse incentive for states to lower their academic standards, and that pressure to lower standards will grow stronger with each passing year unless Congress makes substantial changes,” he writes in a Heritage paper.

Here’s why: NCLB requires states to test students every year and show that they’re making progress toward all students demonstrating “proficiency” on state-level tests by 2014. A laudable goal, to be sure, and no one denies that we should push students to succeed. But because the requirement is an imposed solution -- an edict handed down from on high, rather than one generated by parents and local officials -- many states have reacted predictably: To avoid federal penalties, they’ve lowered their standards to ensure that more students pass the test. As Hickok shows, Texas, Arizona and other states are leading an unfortunate “race to the bottom.”

You could call this outcome an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences at work --except that it really shouldn’t surprise anyone. At least, not anyone who knows that it’s a mistake to put Washington in charge of an area best left to the states. As Sen. Barry Goldwater said back in 1958 when he opposed the National Defense Education Act of 1958, the first federal law that provided funding to schools: “Federal aid to education invariably means federal control of education.”

Those who push for that control may do so with the best of intentions, but it often winds up backfiring on them. Only the worst partisan hack could doubt President Bush’s desire to end “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and his original proposal for NCLB did include some conservative ideas -- cutting bureaucracy, giving states flexibility, promoting school choice. But as Heritage education experts Dan Lips and Evan Feinberg note, these provisions were dropped during negotiations with Congress. “What emerged,” they write, “was a law that has increased spending by 41 percent, expanded federal authority and bureaucracy, and created 7 million hours per year worth of new regulations and paperwork for state and local authorities.”

Obviously, this isn’t what the president -- not to mention millions of parents -- had in mind.

Congress still has the opportunity to do the right thing and make the law work. One approach that sounds promising comes from Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas). Their “A-PLUS Act” would let states opt out of NCLB and enter into performance agreements. “Their plan would give states freedom from federal bureaucracy and red tape if they agree to establish academic goals and maintain a consistent, transparent testing system over time to determine whether students are learning,” Lips and Feinberg write.

The best part of this approach is that it would move decisions about education back to the state and local level, closer to parents. Those of us who champion family issues are sometimes asked what type of education we favor: Public? Private? Homeschool? The fact is, children can excel at all three. What’s important is that their parents, who know them best, are the ones making the choices about what works best for their children -- and when.

Parent-centered education reforms continue to proliferate nationwide. This year, more than 1 million children will be able to attend safe and effective schools chosen by their parents, thanks to reforms implemented at the state and local level.

I urge you to become better acquainted with the many schooling options now available. Heritage’s “Types of School Choice” is a great place to start. It outlines just about everything, from tax credits and education savings accounts to scholarships and charter schools. And it shows why parents should settle for nothing less than excellence when it comes to the supremely important task of educating their children.

We need to remember that parents -- not federal bureaucrats -- are best situated to direct their children’s education. Congress and President Bush should study his words when he was governor of Texas: “The federal government should be a limited partner, not a general partner. If they feel like sending money back to the states, fine. But don’t tell us how to run things.”

It’s time to tear down the NCLB façade and restore true localization and parental control to education.