|Demint-Cornyn A-PLUS Act Is Real Conservative Education Reform|
By Ashton Ellis
Wednesday, September 05 2012
With all the attention earned by state governors recently for enacting major education reforms, it’s tempting to think that local officials can call their own shots when it comes to education policy. But states have almost no control over two of the biggest obstacles to further reform: No Child Left Behind’s impossible standards, and the Obama Administration’s waiver abuses.
For all its problems – including imposing 7.8 million hours and $245 million in annual compliance costs – NCLB’s biggest flaw is to legislate failure by demanding perfection. It does this by requiring all children in all school districts to be proficient in math and reading by 2014.
Foolishly optimistic people called this goal “ambitious” when NCLB was signed into law a decade ago. More than ten years later, those most affected by the law – schoolchildren, parents, teachers and administrators – will be penalized for failing to deliver on Washington’s promises; first with cuts in funding, then with even more federal interventions that will further erode local control of education.
Faced with these looming threats, states are seeking relief. But since NCLB is so universally criticized, Congress refused to reauthorize it on schedule in 2006, and every year thereafter. The result has been to empower the U.S. Department of Education to interpret the law through more than 100 separate guidance documents. Each has the effect of law on states and local schools. So thanks to activists in the Obama Administration and a grid-locked Congress, NCLB has become a vehicle for bureaucrats to rewrite federal education policy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Education Department’s NCLB waivers.
In a nutshell, NCLB waivers exchange relief from the law’s funding cut penalties for increased federal interventions in state and local policy. The most infamous example so far has been the virtual requirement that waiver-receiving states adopt Common Core, an attempt by central planners in Washington to nationalize every public school’s curriculum. Since President Obama made Common Core the benchmark for getting a waiver last September, only Virginia has been granted a waiver without explicitly adopting the curriculum, although the Old Dominion promises to create something substantially similar.
Going forward, states and schools need relief not just from NCLB’s naïve demands, but also the Obama Administration’s bureaucratic overreach.
The best plan available is the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) Act. A-PLUS was first introduced by Senators Jim DeMint (R-SC) and John Cornyn (R-TX) in 2007, and reintroduced in 2011. Both times the bill has seen hostility from liberals in Congress, and for good reason. If passed, A-PLUS would reverse the flow of authority back to states and local school districts.
In an excellent analysis, Lindsey Burke, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation, explains how the A-PLUS Act creates flexibility by saving time and money. The key to the bill is the provision allowing states to opt-out of NCLB’s costly and time-consuming requirements. States can instead choose to enter a five-year performance agreement signed with the U.S. Secretary of Education. The terms tilt in favor of states in two important ways.
The first is reducing compliance costs. Rather than mandate the loss of millions of hours filling out paperwork to chase more than 90 grant programs administered by NCLB, A-PLUS allows states to consolidate the dollars they receive into block grants. This means states can reroute money and manpower back into the classroom. The money saved on compliance staff can then be used in a variety of beneficial ways, such as salary incentives for high-performing teachers, rebates to taxpayers or better materials for students.
The second improvement over NCLB is spending discretion. Most federal grant programs impose a one-size-fits-all spending regime on states that make it almost impossible to base policy decisions on specific needs. A-PLUS corrects this problem in the education context by allowing states under a performance agreement to spend their block grant dollars on any lawful educational purpose. This allows different states with different student populations – and different approaches to education policy – to pursue reforms that fit their goals, not those of Washington bureaucrats.
Much like Paul Ryan’s budget proposals and the REINS Act, A-PLUS is the product of serious conservative reformers in Congress. All three bills made their debut in 2007, and all three have enjoyed increasing levels of visibility. Ryan’s budget passed the House of Representatives the last two years, while the REINS Act passed for the first time this year. DeMint and Cornyn’s A-PLUS Act has been hampered by Republicans’ minority status in the Senate as well as lingering GOP reluctance to reform one of President George W. Bush’s most significant domestic policies.
Nonetheless, conservatives should not let a good bill like the A-PLUS Act go to waste. Reform-minded governors can do a lot to improve the educational environment of their states, but without legislative changes passed by Congress, NCLB and Obama’s waiver abuses will continue to impose severe limits on states’ budgets and policy choices.
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