Reauthorizing ESEA: The road to effective education is paved with local control and parent power

The following statement by Lindsey M. Burke, Williamson Evers, Theodor Rebarber, Sandra Stotsky, and Ze’ev Wurman was posted on Jay P. Greene’s Blog.  It is reposted here with permission.

Reauthorizing ESEA: The road to effective education is paved with local control and parent power

Lindsey M. Burke, Williamson Evers, Theodor Rebarber, Sandra Stotsky, and Ze’ev Wurman

In reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 2015, Congress should restore the power of state and local governmental authorities. The law as it currently reads has centralized education and moved decision-making to a large and ever-growing federal bureaucracy — far from the schools most students attend.

The current drafts, both the Senate and the House versions, do not return authority to the states and localities or empower parents.  The ESEA has evolved from what was described at the outset in 1965 as a measure to help children from low-income families into an instrument of testing mandates and federal control of public K-12 education and, increasingly, of private education as well. The road to effective education is paved with local control and parent power.

We need to reauthorize ESEA in a way that empowers parents and moves authority back to local communities and the state laboratories of democracy where it belongs. Moreover, the reauthorization should abandon the ill-considered idea planted in the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Flexibility Waivers that our high schools are simply college-prep factories. Instead, the reauthorization should return to the previous widely accepted idea that high schools should prepare young people for American citizenship and to fulfill their individual potential as they see fit. Toward that end, high schools should be permitted to establish several sets of challenging academic standards rather than a single set of standards that purport to deliver self-proclaimed (but actually meaningless) “college-readiness.” Similarly, instead of federal regulations that require that the testing “tail” wag the curriculum “dog,” communities and charter schools must be able to select reliable assessments that align with their locally established curriculum.

Recent attempts to provide better educational opportunities to low-income children through one-size-fits-all requirements and increased federal testing mandates in the various versions of ESEA since its inception have met with little success.  As education researcher Helen Ladd concluded in her comments on a 2010 Brookings Institution paper by Thomas Dee and Brian Jacob:

“… First, the null findings for reading indicate to me that to the extent that higher reading scores are an important goal for the country, NCLB is clearly not the right approach. That raises the obvious follow-up question: what is?…

“[T]he suggestive evidence that I have included here on Massachusetts [indicates] that states may be in a better position to promote student achievement than the federal government.”

The 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act should restore power to states and localities by allowing states, school districts, and charter schools to opt out fully and completely from the programs and regulations of ESEA, currently reauthorized as No Child Left Behind. When they opt out, states, local school districts, and charter schools would formally and publicly explain the accountability measures that they would use to assure that federal dollars improve the K-12 education of disadvantaged children. They would also provide the rationale that supports these measures.

States and local authorities would thereby be in a position to direct federal dollars to their students’ most pressing education needs. By this we mean that the 2015 reauthorization should follow the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) approach, which has been offered in previous years.

In addition, the 2015 reauthorization should:

  1. Eliminate mandates, including, but not limited to: Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), federal prescription of annual grade-level testing for each student, the Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT) mandate, and maintenance of effort (MOE) regulations. The reauthorized act should not require a single statewide set of standards or assessments in each state, nor approval or review of any state or local district or charter school standards or assessments by the U.S. Department of Education. It should instead allow states, local school districts and charters the choice of what grades and subjects to test, and the number of tests, letting them choose from among a wide range of state-approved standards and aligned valid and reliable tests. Those states that believe annual grade-level testing in specified subjects of each student doesn’t improve student learning could drop it, while those states who believe such testing makes their state more competitive and is useful for teacher and school accountability could keep it. They should provide parents and taxpayers with reasons for their choice. Eliminating the prescriptive and ineffective Highly Qualified Teacher mandate would put states instead in a position to improve teacher quality by requiring teachers to demonstrate content mastery of the subject matter they teach, instead of having to use false measures of effectiveness, such as paper credentials and licensure. 
  1. Eliminate programs and, correspondingly, eliminate the spending tied to those programs. The reauthorization bill should eliminate the competitive grant programs that have accumulated over the years (some 60 programs) and cut appropriations for those programs to zero. The proliferation of competitive grant programs is one of the primary means by which Washington has increased its intervention in local school policy over the decades.
  1. Make Title I money portable. Any reauthorization of ESEA should provide states the option to make their Title I dollars portable to follow students to any public or private school of choice. This idea has been fleshed-out by the Brookings Institution’s Russ Whitehurst. Writing in EducationNext magazine, Whitehurst suggested:

Rather than the complicated federal schemes under which funds are currently disbursed to districts, funds should be attached to the student. Individual schools would receive federal funds based on student counts, with a weighting formula to adjust for factors such as the increased burden of educating high-need students and for regional differences in costs. Sometimes called “backpack funding,” weighted funding that follows the student has been shown to direct proportionally more funds to schools that serve needy students than traditional distribution schemes.

Portability of Title I funding, however, does not mean federal mandates should also be portable. Specifically, portability must not be used to extend federal or state standards and testing mandates to any private school that receives funds under the act. Such an extension must be prohibited by specific language in ESEA.

  1. Strengthen prohibitions against national standards and tests. So long as federal K-12 competitive grant programs, conditional waivers, and conditional grants-in-aid exist, the federal education bureaucracy will have trouble resisting the temptation to dictate curriculum content. Despite prohibitions already existing in three federal statutes against meddling in curriculum, President Obama and the U.S. Department of Education incentivized states to adopt curriculum-content standards (the Common Core), and they funded national tests designed to secure those content standards in place.

Language in any reauthorization should underscore that the federal government is prohibited from directing curricula, and should further ensure that the federal government may not condition or award preferences in federal grants or contracts to states that adopt any particular academic content standards, tests or curricula, including but not limited to the Common Core standards.

With specific regard to the proposal put forward by Sen. Lamar Alexander, entitled the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015 (a title problematic in and of itself as it continues the notion that high schools are little more than college-prep or career factories), the proposal includes language that runs counter to the goal of restoring state and local control of education. It includes, for example, an assurance that states have “state standards aligned with entrance requirements, without the need for academic remediation, for an institution of higher education in the State.” This assurance needs to be eliminated.

Additionally, to allow for multiple standards and assessments, the language included in the draft that state assessments “are the same academic assessments used to measure the achievement of all students;” also needs to be eliminated. If the same assessment must be used for all students in the state, there is no possibility of multiple assessments. Moreover, if the authors are serious about restoring state and local control of education, there can be no peer review process of state plans dictated from the federal level, as the current proposal requires. There must also be no federal directives on what local report cards should look like, as the current proposal also contains.

The proposal should also go further in prohibiting the collection of individual student data from the state or other entities. It should also prohibit the federal collection of individual student data from states, contractors, and grantees and prohibit the Secretary of Education from possessing individual student data. All language mandating the content of local report cards should be removed. Parents must be empowered to shape the kind of information they want the teachers they hire and pay for to give them. Report cards are part of local accountability, which must be retained.

Above all, any reauthorization of ESEA should take meaningful steps toward curtailing federal overreach into local school policy. Reauthorization should roll back the host of programs and mandates that burden states and local boards, and allow states, school districts and charter schools to opt out completely, and allow school policy to be set at the local level. For the sake of our children and the future liberty of our country, we need to restore local control of education.

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Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, Williamson M. Evers is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a former U.S. assistant secretary of education for planning, evaluation, and policy development, Theodor Rebarber is CEO of AccountabilityWorks, Sandra Stotsky is professor emerita in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and Ze’ev Wurman is a former senior policy adviser with the U.S. Department of Education. This article reflects our views individually, not necessarily the views of our organizations.

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