In a time of tense partisanship in Washington, one area of bipartisan agreement is that our education system too often fails our children and is in need of reform.
Properly implementing that reform is critical. A quality education provides the springboard from which our children may pursue their highest dreams. Knowledge gained in the formative years establishes the foundation for a success in life. Only an effective education system will produce the strong workforce America needs to remain competitive in the global economy.
We all agree the current system is broken. Unfortunately, serious conflicts remain about how to fix it. Despite the complicated policy, the central question is simple: Who can best determine the educational needs of our children and help fulfill those needs on a daily basis?
As a mother of a child in public school, I know local teachers are best suited to teach local students, and that dedicated local principals—empowered by student-centric policies and supported by parents—have the most potential to run innovative and effective schools. Realizing this potential, however, is only possible when our schools are rooted in the community and our policies emphasize familiarity, flexibility, and accountability.
• Teachers familiar with community values who have longstanding relationships with parents are more likely to connect with our children in a way that promotes learning. Certainly, one’s approach to teaching in Montgomery may differ from that in Los Angeles or Chicago. Approaches may even differ from school district to school district. Such variations are impossible when federal regulations dictate classroom activity.
• Principals and superintendents, empowered with the flexibility to manage their schools efficiently, are best able to identify successful programs, promote quality teachers, and allocate scarce resources to their most effective uses. Federal grant programs rarely allow this degree of flexibility.
• The more a community values the local education system, the more accountability exists. At the local level, we can recognize effective superintendents and principals, identify appropriate curricula, and reward success. Moreover, when problems arise, we can voice concerns to individuals in our community, not faceless bureaucrats in Washington.
Unfortunately, America is moving toward an educational system that abandons these basic principles.
Never allowing a crisis to go to waste, the Obama Administration is seizing on broad dissatisfaction with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law to advance a “Washington-knows-best” education agenda. The administration seeks to impose uniform federal regulations—developed by unelected, unaccountable officials at the Department of Education—on our local schools. These initiatives transfer authority away from local school officials, increase federal power, and place even more strings on federal funding.
We all agree NCLB needs a rewrite. The law seemed promising when Congress enacted it in 2002, but today parts of NCLB are deeply unpopular with education officials nationwide.
NCLB has evolved into an unworkable and unrealistic law. One particularly problematic provision, referred to as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), mandates that by 2014 every student perform at 100%, the “proficient level” or above on state assessments in English and mathematics. Because the law does not give school officials the flexibility to decide how to properly educate students who are still learning English or children with significant disabilities, every school in America is likely to be labeled as failing in three short years. This designation could lead to massive school closings and teacher and principal firings, all at the hands of administration employees who have never stepped foot in Alabama's schools.
In response, the administration is offering executive waivers to individual states. The waivers come with a price: schools seeking an exemption from AYP must comply with more than 40 new mandates and a slew of additional requirements, all developed by the Obama Administration. Full compliance for every school in Alabama would cost a million dollars or more, not one dollar of which is being proffered by the administration.
The administration enacted a similar effort to “allow” states to compete for federal funding through the $4 billion Race to the Top program. Again, there is a catch: to compete for the grants, which are funded by taxpayers, schools must first adopt Common Core Standards. States that refuse to accept a national curriculum in their classrooms are ineligible. This scheme represents a massive redistribution of education dollars to areas that favor federal control.
Making matters worse, news reports indicate that the Race to the Top application process was unnecessarily complex. Additionally, a recent Government Accountability Office report found the U.S. Department of Education took longer than anticipated to review Race to the Top plans due to the unique challenges facing each state. Perhaps this bureaucratic delay is expected, given the size of these government programs.
I worry that initiatives like the AYP waivers or Race to the Top will result in an increased state dependency on the federal government, which is exactly what the Obama Administration wants. As federal funding increases, so too does federal regulation and control. Local authority always moves in the opposite direction.
Congress created much of this mess and Congress should clean it up. As a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, I am proud that our committee is taking action. Rather than push massive comprehensive legislation, we have elected to consider a handful of targeted bills that address specific areas of the law. Each seeks to reduce federal overreach, boost local authority, and increase the flexibility of federal funding programs.
Despite the partisan tone in Washington, I am hopeful Republicans and Democrats will recognize the urgency and rally around commonsense, student-centered policies that encourage local authority and flexibility. Further abdication of our legislative responsibility to the executive branch represents a dereliction of duty and, potentially, a further federalization of local schools.