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Charting a course toward better education.

THE NEW DEMOCRAT CONTROLLED 110th Congress is scheduled to consider reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which will be the ninth reauthorization of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). Yet, five years after its enactment, it is becoming clear that NCLB, like previous versions of the ESEA. does not have the capacity to resolve the problems that plague American public education, as growing evidence suggests that the latest Federal strategy for improving education is not accomplishing its objectives, again demonstrating Washington's inability to improve local education.

As Congress considers a ninth reauthorization of the ESEA, it should break the pattern of increasing funding for expansive Federal programs intended to steer education policy nationwide. This pattern has encouraged the proliferation of state bureaucracy find fostered a compliance mentality among state find local officials, leading them to focus primarily on following Federal regulations. Instead, lawmakers should take a step toward restoring better governance by returning policymaking authority to the state and local levels, thereby promoting an environment in which educators would be more directly responsive to those who primarily are affected by their decisions: students, parents, and local taxpayer.

Specifically, Congress should embrace a "charter state option." This would allow every state to choose between the status quo and a simplified contractual arrangement in which the state would have broad authority to consolidate and refocus its Federal funds on state-directed initiatives in exchange for monitoring and reporting academic progress. The charter state option would restore greater federalism in education, allowing state leaders to embrace innovative strategies according to their local needs, priorities, and reform philosophy while making them more directly responsible to parents and taxpayers for the results.

In 1965, Pies. Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as a part of his War on Poverty initiative, stating, "I believe deeply no law I have signed or will ever sign will mean more to the future of America." The 34-page ESEA provided for approximately $2,000,000,000 in Federal funding to improve educational opportunities for the disadvantaged. Over the next four decades, the ESEA was reauthorized eight times, and the Federal government's involvement in education grew. By 2002. the law had ballooned into the 1,100-page No Child Left Behind Act, funded at $22,000,000,000. However, while Federal spending has increased 146% between 1970-2005, test scores generally have remained flat in reading and have improved only slightly in math.

Pres. George W. Bush arrived in Washington promising to transform the Federal role in education. During the 2000 election campaign, he asserted, "t don't want to tinker with the machinery of the Federal role in education. I want to redefine that role entirely." He also expressed a belief in a limited role for Washington in education: "I do not want to be the Federal superintendent of schools," Bush maintained. "I don't want to be the national principal. I believe in local control of schools."

Shortly alter the President entered the White House, his Administration unveiled a 31-page blueprint for reforming the ESEA. The plan, known as No Child Left Behind, sought to accomplish four objectives: increase accountability for student performance, focus on what works, reduce bureaucracy and increase flexibility for states and school districts, and empower parents with school choice. The Administration also sought to build bipartisan support for fundamental reforms by proposing a significant increase in Federal spending.

As the NCLB proposal was developed on Capitol Hill, leading Democrats, including Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California, played an important role in shaping the legislation. During negotiations, key components of the original Bush Administration package, such as private school choice and a charter state option to allow greater flexibility, were stripped from the bill. After a year of congressional negotiations, NCLB emerged as a 1,100-page bill that established substantial new requirements on states and schools and expanded funding for ESEA programs by approximately 26%. On Jan. 8, 2002, Pres. Bush signed NCLB into law.

After five years and a spending increase of nearly $6,000,000,000, NCLB highlights the limits and challenges of Federal involvement in education. American students are not on track to meet the law's proficiency goals, and NCLB has failed to accomplish two of the core objectives of the President's original blueprint for education reform: significantly increasing state and local flexibility and substantially expanding parental choice options.

The centerpiece of NCLB is a set of student testing and accountability requirements that were designed to put all students on course to achieve proficiency on state examinations by 2014. To meet that objective, NCLB extended the Department of Education's reach into new aspects of American education. The law requires states to test students annually in grades three through eight and once in grades 10 through 12 and to report student performance (including disaggregated scores for student subgroups) and progress toward proficiency, which is known as adequate yearly progress (AYP). Schools that fail to meet AYP are subject to a timeline of school improvement reforms, including public school choice, after-school tutoring, or school restructuring. Early evidence suggests that NCLB has not substantially changed American students' academic achievement. Moreover, some researchers have found that the law may be distorting preexisting state assessments by creating dual accountability systems and watered-down testing measures. In addition, NCLB has demonstrated the Federal government's limited ability to ensure that states and local school systems offer greater parental choice in education. Participation in both the public school choice and the after-school tutoring provisions of NCLB has been low. Specifically, less than one percent of the 3,900,000 eligible students used the public school choice options during the 2003-04 school year. Moreover, participation in the limited option of subsidized after-school tutoring program is higher, but still low. Only 17% of eligible students participated in Supplemental Education Services during 2004-05.

One reason for low participation in public school choice under NCLB is the limited capacity in high-quality schools in some school districts. One remedy in such cases would be to allow students to choose to attend private schools as an alternative, but Federal law does not permit that option.

When Congress considers reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. it should consider the constitutional, financial, and practical limitations on Washington's involvement in education. Federal efforts to steer policy and ever-increasing funding have not led to improved student achievement. To the contrary, they have created a convoluted reporting system that has encouraged the proliferation of state bureaucracy and a compliance mentality among many state and local officials. Congress therefore should create a charter state option in which a state could opt for a contractual relationship that would allow state and local authorities to make decisions based on how best to help students with the available resources. The contract would free state and local authorities from Federal regulations and red tape, reducing Washington's role to a level commensurate with its eight percent funding share in local education. Under the contract, state elected officials would have the discretion to consolidate and refocus their Federal education funding on state-directed initiatives--from phonics to class-size reduction--in exchange for monitoring and reporting academic results.

The charter option would allow different states to pursue differing methods to enhance student learning. For example, one state could choose to build on promising school choice reforms and increase parental options by expanding access to charter schools or by implementing tuition scholarships or education tax credits. Another state could pursue reforms designed to improve teacher quality in low-performing public schools. Federalism would give each state the freedom to implement its reform strategies while learning from the successes and failures of other states' reforms.

Set states free

A charter state option would work in much the same way as a charter school contract. States choosing a charter status with the Federal government would operate with greater freedom in exchange for results. Any state could choose the charter alternative by a decision of its legislative and executive branches. The state would specify which of its Federal K-12 education programs would be part of the contract. The charter state then would be exempt from the program mandates, processes, and paperwork associated with the programs included in its contract, and the Federal government would provide the money for these programs to the state in a single funding stream. In the initial contract, state officials also would describe and establish a clear plan for measuring student performance, including the state's for testing all public school students, monitoring annual progress relative to proficiency, and reporting the results to parents and taxpayers.

The charter state option is based on a proposal that gained considerable support on Capitol Hill and among state policymakers during the late 1990s. In 1999, Rep. Bill Goodling (R.-Pa.), who served as chairman for the House Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities as well as the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, introduced the Academic Achievement for All Act, commonly called the Straight A's Act, which offered all states the opportunity to enter into contractual agreements with the Federal government similar to the charter state option. Many of the members of the incoming 110th Congress--along with 13 state governors--sponsored, endorsed, or voted for the original Straight A's proposal, including 112 representatives and 22 senators. Several state and local school leaders also testified before Congress on its behalf. The National Council of State Legislators and the American Legislative Exchange Council endorsed the Straight A's proposal. Paul Vallas, former chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools and now CEO of the District of Philadelphia, testified before a House subcommittee field hearing: "We support the concept of combining as many Federal programs as possible into one or two grants, tied to contracts for agreed-upon results."

On Sept. 23, 1999, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida testified before a House committee on behalf of the measure: "Though the Federal contribution to education in Florida is small, only about seven percent of total spending, it takes more than 40% of the state's education staff to oversee and administer Federal dollars. In fact, in Florida, six times as many people are required to administer a Federal education dollar as are required by a state dollar--and how much learning has the Federal government achieved through these expenditures? No one knows.

"Imagine what our states could do if we could spend more of our time and energy working to improve student achievement, rather than tediously complying with a dizzying array of Federal roles. At the very least, the Federal government should stop creating barriers for states that are taking new educational approaches."

On Oct. 21, 1999, by a vote of 213-208, the House of Representatives passed a version of Straight A's that would have created a pilot project for 10 states. However, the measure stalled in the Senate and never became law. When Pres. Bush entered the White House in 2001, a provision similar to the House version of the Straight A's plan was included in the Administration's original No Child Left Behind proposal: "A charter option for states and districts committed to accountability and reform will be created. Under this program, charter states and districts would be freed from categorical program requirements in return for submitting a five-year performance agreement to the Secretary of Education and being subject to especially rigorous standards of accountability." However, the charter option was stripped from the bill during the NCLB debate. In its place, the law included a modest provision to allow states limited flexibility to consolidate and redirect certain funding within Federal programs, which was a far cry from allowing states the flexibility to consolidate all Federal funds.

NCLB's broken promises

NCLB has not delivered on the promised flexibility in directing education policy and instead has produced the largest expansion of Federal involvement in state and local education policy since 1965. As a result, more state and local officials have recognized negative aspects of the Federal government's role in education. Reviving the Straight A's idea through the charter state option may have even more appeal now than it did in the 1990s. Moreover, NCLB has created a greater nationwide focus on results. In this environment, it makes sense to move away from highly prescriptive and cumbersome Federal program management to an alternative arrangement that allows states to exercise full authority over the means (educational policy and strategy for improving student achievement) as they take responsibility for results.

In the face of mounting criticism of NCLB, Congress may be tempted to increase funding for the status quo or to return to the pre-NCLB Federal role in education. Neither course is advisable. To create a successful charter state option, Congress should follow five principles:

* All states should have the choice to take advantage of the charter state option. Each state should be free to decide whether local students and schools would be better served by state-directed education reforms or by the existing system of Federal rules and regulations.

* States should be given maximum freedom and flexibility to control funds and consolidate programs. Currently, a typical state receives its share of Federal funding for K-12 through dozens of programs, each with its own paperwork and administrative requirements that impose a heavy burden on states. More important, the Federal programs and requirements distort state and local governance of education by encouraging a compliance mentality among administrators instead of a spirit of leadership in implementing strategic plans to meet the specific needs of their students. State policymakers and administrators are in a better position than Congress or the Department of Education to assess student needs and implement meaningful strategies to meet those needs. They also can make adjustments promptly when circumstances require, rather than just once every five or more years when reauthorizing the Federal program.

* States should be allowed to manage their student assessment systems with transparency about the process and results. Under the charter state agreement, states would maintain the freedom to create and direct their assessment systems. Such systems should contain essential elements of current law: systematically measuring the progress of all students relative to proficiency levels, establishing a baseline for monitoring progress over time, and maintaining uniformity of testing procedures throughout the course of the charter agreement. States would report scores by student subgroup and chart progress over time to allow for year-to-year comparisons. They would provide for the broad dissemination of this information to parents and taxpayers. States should have the freedom to develop more meaningful and appropriate means of measuring adequate yearly progress than provided under current law, including measures that allow for comparison of the same cohort over time rather than comparing one cohort to the next.

* States should be allowed the autonomy to improve Title I delivery by having more discretion over funds to assist disadvantaged students. Currently, the Title I program is administered through a set of complex and cumbersome formulas that substantially deplete funds before they reach eligible students. Congress first should simplify Title I and then allow states the freedom to deliver funds more effectively based on their own strategies, consistent with the goals of compensatory education. States should be allowed to include Title I in their charter agreement if they guarantee to refocus those funds in a manner that advances that goal.

* Congress should define clearly the criteria for contract approval. If a state meets the clear, congressionally defined contract guidelines, its contract should be approved by the Department of Education. The Secretary of Education should have the authority to verify whether or not the state has met legislative requirements for the charter agreement. The contract elements should not be subject to negotiation. Rather, the contract is an opportunity to establish formally how the state proposes to proceed for the purpose of later verification. This provision should be stipulated legislatively. The contract agreement would cover a five-year period. If the state abides by the terms of the contract, it would be free extend its contract for another time period.

Across the U.S., nearly 50,000,000 students are served by 96,000 public schools. Policymakers in Washington, D.C., cannot be expected to diagnose the diverse learning needs of these students and to craft solutions adequate to meet all of them. As the record of the past 40 years shows, Federal involvement in education has not succeeded in improving student achievement in any meaningful way. Policymakers from across the political spectrum should recognize the limits of formulating education policy at the Federal level and steer a course toward restoring state control of education by enacting a charter state option. Such federalism would create an environment in which promising state and local education strategies can flourish.

Dan Lips is education analyst, Evan Fein. berg is a research assistant, and Jennifer A. Marshall is director in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C. This article is adapted from a Heritage Foundation position paper.
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Title Annotation:Education
Author:Lips, Dan; Feinberg, Evan; Marshall, Jennifer A.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Words:2819
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