What do Republicans want federal education policy to look like? In the mid-1990s, they wanted to abolish the Department of Education. A few years later, President George W. Bush wanted to use federal dollars to make states reform their schools.
Right now, Republicans are divided about what they want. The open question is whether they can make an effective response to the dramatic centralization of education policy that has taken place in recent years.
Most Republicans these days have at least a vague impulse to take power over the schools away from Washington. Some of the party’s presidential candidates have supported the Common Core educational standards, for example, but all of them say that the federal government should leave decisions over the standards to the states.
What a lot of Republicans don’t appreciate is how much power Washington has already amassed. That misunderstanding helps explain why House Republicans have had trouble passing an education bill. Their leaders, a few weeks ago, tried to hold a vote on the Student Success Act, which would, among other things, end the federal mandate that states ensure 100 percent of their students are proficient at math and English. But the bill had to be pulled after a revolt by conservatives who said it still allowed too large a federal role. They want states to get federal aid with no strings attached.
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While Congress bickers, the executive branch is setting policy. Congress hasn’t reauthorized the main federal programs for primary and secondary schools since Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act became law in 2002. That law was written on the assumption that Congress would revisit education policy well before now. Since the law has instead continued on auto-pilot, most schools are now technically failing its standard of 100 percent proficiency and thus are subject to penalties.
The Department of Education has filled the vacuum. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has given states waivers from these penalties in return for their adoption of policies he favors – including the Common Core standards that many conservative activists abhor.
The Student Success Act would no longer designate most schools as failing. It would also prevent the federal government from rewarding states for adopting Common Core or any other standards. That makes sense: The disappointing results of No Child Left Behind suggest that federal meddling does more to generate controversy than to improve schooling.
But nobody is talking about eliminating the federal role entirely. Even when Republicans wanted to abolish the Education Department they weren’t proposing to end all the programs it houses. Nor is anyone proposing that today. And there’s no argument in principle for the federal government to spend billions of dollars with no strings attached. There are only practical questions about how many strings, and what kind of strings, will do any good.
Proponents of the Student Success Act say it strikes a reasonable compromise on these questions. States will still have to test students regularly in the interests of transparency and accountability (to voters and parents, that is, not to the Department of Education). But the federal government will no longer try to drive school reform. Because even teachers’ unions dislike some of the federal regulations the bill would abolish, it may also have a realistic shot at becoming law. Removing all conditions from federal funding, on the other hand, won’t fly.
The great disappointment of the bill is that it only lets poor students use federal funds for public and charter schools, excluding private and parochial ones. The federal government acquired a large role in education in the first place in the name of helping those children. If their parents decide that their needs are best served by a private school, the funding should enable that choice. Prominent Republicans, including the party’s last presidential nominee, have endorsed that idea. It should at least be up for a vote.
But even if the Student Success Act doesn’t get the federal role quite right, it’s still much better than the status quo – in which the Department of Education takes a policymaking role no Congress has ever authorized. It’s healthy for Republicans to debate about ideals, so long as they remember to take account of reality.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.