The Case for a “Greatly Reduced Federal Footprint” in Education

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When Congressman John Kline (R–MN) served as a Marine, “one of [his] assignments was to carry the ‘football’—the package containing the nuclear launch codes—for presidents Carter and Reagan,” writes George Will in profile of the House Education and Workforce Committee chairman last week.

Now Kline is quarterbacking the House approach to the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which, Will says, “soon will be 10 years old and may not recognizably survive to see its 12th birthday.”

As Will reports, Kline “emphatically favors ‘a greatly reduced federal footprint’ in primary and secondary education”:

Kline promises that the current system for measuring “adequate yearly progress” “will not exist when we are done.” And he says “we have to get rid of this ‘highly qualified teacher’ thing” in NCLB. He thinks “qualified” is shorthand for teachers processed by the normal credentialing apparatus of education schools and departments. The stress, Kline says, should be on “highly effective teachers.”

He favors more charter schools—public schools operating outside union restrictions. He notes that when unions say these schools are “unfair” because “they work under different rules,” he tersely responds: “Precisely.”

The federal intervention into local schools began with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. NCLB is the eighth reauthorization of that law, which now includes dozens of programs, funded at $25 billion. This perpetual expansion and overhaul of programs has attempted to make federal intervention succeed where it has neither authority nor capacity.

Before dealing with any of the specifics on NCLB, Kline has held a series of hearings (here, here, here, and here) designed to make clear the scope of the federal interventionist policy on education.

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From the hearings, it is clear that Washington’s involvement seems to have brought out the worst in education governance. It has led to ever-increasing spending and bureaucratic bloat while undermining schools’ direct accountability to parents and taxpayers. Federal intervention also creates a compliance burden, sapping time and money that could be more effectively deployed to achieve educational excellence. For example, according to James Willcox, CEO of Aspire Public Schools:

To qualify for or renew Title I funding requires copious amount of paperwork. For each employee funded with Title I monies, we must fill out a personnel activity sheet each month. We must then outline their salary for that month and describe how much of that salary is from Title I funding. Each staff member and his/her principal have to sign these forms on a monthly basis. Across our 30 schools, teachers, principals and administrative staff spend approximately three hours per month filling out compliance paperwork. These are hours taken from supporting our teachers, assisting our families or preparing our students for success in college. In addition to these monthly reports, we must submit two 30-page reports each year outlining our adherence to Title I under No Child Left Behind.

Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee chairman Duncan Hunter (R–CA) made similar observations from his congressional oversight perspective:

Currently, the paperwork burden imposed by the Department of Education is larger than that of the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Justice. From 2002 to 2009, the Department of Education’s paperwork burden increased by an estimated 65 percent—an astounding number that continues to grow.

Congress can take steps now to set a course that will get Washington out of the way of local schools and restore constitutional governance in education, beginning with the following near-term steps:

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1. Take stock of and lead Americans in conversation about the toll federal intervention is taking on local schools. Policymakers need much more information on the scope and effects of federal intervention. The Government Accountability Office and others should investigate the extent and impact of the federal role in schools today. Policymakers should explain the toll of federal intervention through hearings, town halls, and an ongoing rhetorical campaign to accomplish a public opinion shift like that on welfare reform in the 1990s.

2. Allow states to opt out of federal K–12 programs and direct funding to state education priorities. Federal policymakers should provide states with increased freedom so that they can focus on direct accountability to parents and taxpayers, not federal compliance. The A-PLUS proposal, a conservative alternative to NCLB introduced by Senators Jim DeMint (R–SC) and John Cornyn (R–TX), would allow state leaders to opt out of and consolidate funding from dozens of federal K–12 education programs and direct it to the most pressing education needs in their states without all the federal red tape. Meanwhile, it would provide transparency and accountability to parents and taxpayers for education results.

3. Make way for state systemic reform. Federal systemic reform strategies, which have sought system-wide change since the 1990s through a top-down approach, have failed to improve academic outcomes. By contrast, state reforms have reaped results. Systemic reform in Florida, for example, has had impressive results reducing achievement gaps—succeeding at the original objective that spurred Washington’s intervention. Washington should get out of the systemic reform business, ending policies that overreach in this way and eliminating or consolidating programs to reduce redundancy and compliance burdens.

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4. Simplify Title I and make it student-centered. Title I funding for low-income students has become enormously complex since 1965, making it likely that “no more than a handful of experts in the country clearly understand the process from beginning to end.” To make sure maximum funding reaches low-income students, Congress should fund states based on the number of low-income students using a set per-pupil allocation. Congress should also allow states the flexibility to fund the student, not the system, through portability of the student’s per-pupil allocation to a school of choice.

Expansive federal funding and burdensome administrative mandates have eroded good governance, increased state bureaucracy, and achieved poor results. Congress should restore constitutional governance by sending dollars and decision making to those closer to students—freeing states from programmatic strictures and lifting compliance burdens from local leaders. Empowering parents to choose the best schools for their children and releasing schools from bloated bureaucracy can improve every child’s opportunity to achieve educational excellence.

Source material can be found at this site.

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