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February 26, 2015

Is This Any Way to Reform Education?

Update: House pulled the bill after opposition from both conservatives and Democrats.

As kids break free of school for the weekend, the House is scheduled to vote Friday on the next iteration of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the 2001 legislation that replaced the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and exponentially expanded the reach of the federal government into the classroom.

Republicans introduced the Student Success Act (SSA), a bill aimed at scaling back Uncle Sam’s increasingly outsized role in the classroom. But two major groups that are in agreement more often than not – Heritage Action (affiliated with the Heritage Foundation) and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) – have come down on opposite sides of this bill, with AEI backing it and Heritage not. As is often the case with legislation aimed at reining in a runaway government, the core issue comes down to whether the bill goes far enough in returning the federal government to its constitutionally authorized role in education. Incidentally, that role is “none.”

According to AEI, SSA offers several “fixes” to NCLB, including eliminating or consolidating 65 programs, promoting school choice by allowing Title I funds to follow low-income children to the district or charter school parents choose, repealing adequate yearly progress (AYP, which, as we’ve previously noted, has done more harm than good), eliminating the “highly qualified teacher” mandates, and preventing the federal government from pressing states to adopt Common Core or other national academic standards.

Heritage, however, holds that some of the bill’s claims are misleading. For example, according to Heritage, those 65 programs are not eliminated but only consolidated, and the consolidation does not mean spending is reduced. Similarly, while AYP disappears, the requirement that states develop state-level accountability structures does not; instead, SSA “direct[s] the state to establish a single uniform assessment, limiting the ability of local schools to determine their own curriculum.” And while Title I funds can follow the child to district and charter schools, they may not be used for private schools.

Further, Heritage notes of the SSA, “The suggestion that Congress needs a 616-page bill to reduce the federal education imprint is implausible.” Siding with those who believe SSA doesn’t go far enough, Heritage supports the A-PLUS (Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success) option, referring to an amendment offered by Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) that “enables states the flexibility to completely opt out [of federal education programs] and dictate how to best utilize federal education funding.”

AEI is less than convinced by A-PLUS, however. Max Eden and Michael Q. McShane explain that the actual wording of the amendment may encourage, not curb, federal involvement as A-PLUS opt-out requests could require the subjective approval of the secretary of education. Barack Obama’s current secretary, Arne Duncan, isn’t exactly someone conservatives should trust.

If the committee vote is any indication, the Student Success Act will pass the House on party lines and head to the Senate. Already, Obama threatened to veto the bill. He claims it “abdicates the historic federal role in elementary and secondary education of ensuring the educational progress of all of America’s students.”

Obama must have studied Common Core history. Yes, the federal government has a history of interfering in education, but a “historic role” doesn’t mean it’s a constitutional one. In truth, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was first passed only in 1965, and the Department of Education didn’t become a Cabinet-level agency until 1980. Shockingly (ahem), all this “historic” involvement has failed to yield the stellar results promised.

Perhaps America’s Founders were actually onto something when they didn’t delegate to Congress the power to regulate education and, by the Tenth Amendment, reserved it to the states and the people. Of course, when Washington runs the classroom, this is a “historic” fact many students will never hear – and that suits politicians just fine.

> Update: The House pulled the bill after opposition from both conservatives and Democrats.

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