House Republicans get education reform right

On Friday, the House narrowly passed the Student Success Act, on a 221 to 207, mostly partisan vote. The bill would revamp the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act (formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). Only twelve Republicans opposed it.

It’s a good bill, and one of which House Republicans can be proud. It dumps NCLB’s one-size-fits-all system of “adequate yearly progress” and instead requires states collecting federal funds to regularly assess students and publicly report the disaggregated results. It repeals the bureaucratic “highly qualified teacher” mandate, with its fetish for education school credentials and paperwork. It eliminates or consolidates over 70 programs. It includes new language prohibiting federal officials from compelling states to adopt and support the Common Core. It allows states to let Title I funds for low-income students follow those children to the public school of their choice.

The Student Success Act does not get Uncle Sam “out” of K-12 education, but conservatives should be okay with that. In truth, even those firebrands vociferously calling for the feds to get out have repeatedly refused to eliminate, or even aggressively cut, federal aid for low-income students and special education. Since the cost of those two programs totals about $25 billion a year, accounting for the majority of federal spending on K-12 education, the feds will be involved for the foreseeable future. Given that, the principled, constructive course is to unwind intrusive mandates and red tape while insisting on transparency when it comes to academic results and how federal tax dollars are spent.

The bill would put an end to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s expansive, unprecedented, and troubling use of waivers. The Secretary of Education has the authority to waive various provisions of No Child Left Behind, though Duncan has turned this sensible flexibility into a tool for strong-arming states to adopt the Obama administration’s education agenda. States have been desperate for relief from NCLB’s loopy determination that, starting in 2014, they need to start applying federally mandated remedies at any school where 100 percent of students aren’t “proficient” in reading and math. Duncan has used this leverage to insist that states adopt race-based performance targets and federally preferred policies on teacher evaluation, and to lean heavily on states to support the Common Core. The Student Success Act would end Duncan’s ability to play such games.