House Republicans get education reform right

Frederick Hess Director of Education Policy Studies, AEI
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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.

The American public is sensibly jaded about the No Child Left Behind Act, concerned about over-testing, and sympathetic to the argument that federal overreach is bad for schools. Republicans have an opportunity to tap broad support for their proposal. Yet there’s a real risk that they’ll explain their bill in a way that will fail to win over moderates or centrist school reformers. When Republicans succumb to the temptation to just repeat the mantra “we need to get Washington out of our schools,” they tend to lose big when challenged by reform-minded Democrats arguing the feds should ensure federal funds are spent properly, states must close achievement gaps, and local control will just mean a return to the old union-dominated status quo.

Republicans have a compelling response to these concerns, if they’re willing to say the Student Success Act doesn’t “get the feds out of K-12” but does sketch a much more coherent, limited, and modest federal role. The bill still calls for states to regularly assess students, be transparent about their performance, and abide by sensible restrictions on the use of federal funds. It makes it easier for states to promote school choice and rolls back some of the federal regulation hampering schools and school systems.

The House Republicans’ bill maintains transparency, reduces red tape, and gives states new flexibility. It would get the feds out of the Common Core business and put an end to Secretary Duncan’s waivers. This isn’t a federal retreat, it’s a smart, disciplined vision of a principled federal role. Conservatives should describe it that way.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute.

Frederick Hess