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January 8, 2015

All the Children Left Behind

No Child Left Behind may be approaching its day of reckoning.

As millions of students returned to school this week after Christmas break – pardon, “winter holiday” – 535 children legislators convened in Washington to determine, among other things, whether they will allow to continue unchecked the steep deterioration of America’s educational system.

No Child Left Behind, the behemoth federal legislation that’s left not simply one child but an entire generation behind, may be approaching its day of reckoning. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chairs of their respective chambers’ education committees, are preparing an overhaul of the legislation that would divest the federal government of much of its control over education – control our Constitution never authorized Washington to have in the first place.

Signed into law in 2002, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was the successor to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), first passed as part of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” Easily the most far-reaching federal legislation affecting education, ESEA, in its initial form, was 32 pages long, included five titles and provided about $1 billion in federal education funding. Thanks to the growth of federal mandates, programs and general bureaucracy, in fiscal year 2014, funding for NCLB surpassed $25 billion. This, of course, is only a fraction of the more than $130 billion the federal government spends on elementary, secondary and higher education.

The late Ted Kennedy, NCLB’s initial sponsor, once complained, “The tragedy is that these long overdue reforms are finally in place, but the funds are not.” Wrong. Even as education funding skyrocketed over the years, so-called reforms failed to improve education for America’s children. Naturally, the Left’s response is always more money, more regulation and more federal control. Considering the smashing success of Common Core in its nascent years, however, more people are beginning to question whether little Susie really should be learning math according to Washington bureaucrats.

Not surprisingly, the prospect of disentangling federal tentacles from education is an ambitious one. Still, several proposals on the table are not only viable but also quite likely to yield real improvement in the quality of education available to children.

For starters, federal education funding has become so tied to federal mandates that local – and parental – control over education has all but disappeared. To remedy this, the Heritage Foundation notes, “[P]olicymakers should enable states to completely opt out of the programs that fall under No Child Left Behind.” Instead states should be able to “consolidate their federal education funds and use them for any lawful education purpose they deem beneficial.” Such an opt-out option would return a significant portion of educational control to states and local school districts, a fierce contrast to unelected Beltway bureaucrats playing educational puppet masters.

It’s called federalism. The nation should try it.

Similarly, reform should address bureaucratic mandates that hide behind the face of supposed accountability – for example, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements. Like many federal programs, AYP requirements sound good on the surface, but in actuality their effects are detrimental. As the Washington Examiner notes, “The longer a school fails to make adequate yearly progress, the more dramatic its required restructuring. Schools can even be taken over by the state or face mass replacements of school staff.” (As if this is the sure way to scholastic excellence.) Certainly, measuring student progress can be beneficial, but the federal government’s dictating such measurements and issuing penalties for failing to make the grade has clearly failed.

Additionally, as proponents of true education reform have long said, any legislation truly aiming to provide students the opportunity for the best education possible will allow families to choose public, private, parochial or charter schools. So, to the horror of teachers unions everywhere, a meaningful overhaul of federal education legislation must allow for funding portability, in which dollars follow the child instead of being used to hold children hostage in failing schools.

Of course, for those who (rightly) argue that the federal government has no constitutionally authorized role in education at all, a more appealing option would be for states not simply to opt-out of federal programs and “consolidate” federal education funds but for them not to send these funds to Washington in the first place.

It’s a battle whose outcome is far from determined, as powerful teachers unions have a reckless president and his pen on their side. But if ever Congress has a chance to do something that not only helps restore a bit of our constitutional order but also supports true educational opportunity for America’s youth, it’s now.

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