For Conservatives, This Is The Time To Reclaim Education


John Kline Former Congressman
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It’s been nearly two months since Donald J. Trump became the nation’s 45th President, and in that time, there’s been a fair amount of consternation among some conservatives over what they perceive to be White House inaction in repealing Common Core – K-12 benchmarks currently in use by more than 40 states.

“What happened to Common Core – that is, abolishing it?” wrote Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard, in a recent column. “President Trump’s promise to get rid of the controversial program of standards for elementary and secondary schools is gone from his speeches.”

The short answer is that there is nothing left to repeal. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which I co-authored as Chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce with Lamar Alexander, my counterpart in the Senate, devolves powers over standards, tests, and accountability from the Department of Education to states and localities. The law, which replaces the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, was approved by large bipartisan margins in the House and Senate.

Presidential leadership is needed, to be sure, on issues like healthcare, tax reform, and immigration. But education policy is best left to leaders at the local level.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos understood this when last month she said, “I will implement the statutory requirements of ESSA, including adhering to the prohibitions on the Secretary interfering with decisions concerning the academic standards states choose to adopt. …[I]t is the job of states to set those standards.”

Under ESSA, states have not only an opportunity to reclaim control over matters of education, but also a heavy responsibility.

For Republicans, who have control over the levers of government in 25 states (in contrast to the six states in which Democrats have total governing control), the requirements under ESSA provide a long-awaited chance to demonstrate that conservative education policies work.

Indeed, ESSA creates for conservatives an invaluable opportunity to shape education policies in way that will accomplish what 50 years of liberal education policies could not: improve educational outcomes.

Right now every state is hard at work determining how to best implement ESSA, which means establishing a set of high academic standards, selecting a quality summative test to measure gains, and determining what steps are necessary when schools are failing so that students, parents, and taxpayers get a valuable return on their investment.

Local control and parental choice are critically important conservative principles for reforming and improving education. But our commitment to improving outcomes should also extend to an insistence on quality content and increased accountability.

For too many conservatives, criticizing Washington’s past overreaches on matters of education has become a substitute for actual governance, but unfortunately it does little to actually improve outcomes.

ESSA has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Republicans to reclaim the mantle of education and demonstrate that conservative principles can improve outcomes.

It’s time to seize the moment.

Mr. Kline is the former Chairman of the House Education & Workforce Committee.