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Conservative Education Reform That Conservatives Misunderstand

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By Jeanne Allen
National Review
April 7, 2015

Why we need the Student Success Act.

More than three decades ago, a historic report ushered in education reforms aimed at raising standards, holding schools accountable for students’ performance, and giving parents and teachers more power. President Ronald Reagan would attend 51 meetings to discuss the findings of A Nation at Risk and urge states to adopt academic standards that spelled out what students should know and be able to do, measured by tests and reported to parents to inform them of their children’s and schools’ performance.

Conservatives should be proud of their record in addressing the crisis of education. Yet current attitudes toward congressional action on federal education policy are a reminder of that famous admonition that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

For nearly twenty years after the nation began its famous assault on mediocrity in 1983, states would adopt rigorous standards and high-stakes tests, enact school-choice programs, and provide for heightened performance evaluations of schools and their staffs. But a fearful establishment of education groups then weakened standards and created roadblocks to more successful innovation.

As data borne out of those first standards-based tests began to reveal a pernicious achievement gap, a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers took on the controversial task of reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) so that states and schools would have to enact serious accountability measures to address the education crisis. And so No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was established in 2002, reasserting the importance of accountability and choice with a renewed focus on student outcomes. And NCLB worked, until interest groups and the natural tendencies of the federal bureaucracy to rewrite legislative intent had their way.

With a requirement for reauthorization of NCLB now years overdue, congressional leaders have proposed new ways to properly scale the federal role in education. The Student Success Act, currently before the House of Representatives, is one such noble effort. It would remove the tidal wave of mandates that have hit schools as a result of NCLB tinkering, Race to the Top, and other misguided efforts.

The bill gets Washington out of the classroom and returns the responsibility for delivering a quality education to states and school districts. But some conservatives have wrongly come out against the bill, arguing that it doesn’t do enough to reduce the federal role and restore local control.

It dismays me to have to say that, having served in the Reagan administration and as the leader of the Heritage Foundation’s first education-policy office, and as a successful leader in education reform, my conservative friends are misinformed about this bill and what it will do.

The Student Success Act swings the pendulum back to minimal federal intrusion in state affairs. It restores to the states power to implement current federal programs, gives local school districts more leeway on accountability and testing, ensures that reporting and accountability for federal funds are transparent, and provides incentives for states and schools that offer choices to parents. The bill provides flexibility and autonomy in developing rigorous state standards and meaningful school-choice programs. The bill eliminates the ability of the U.S. education secretary to waive tenets of congressionally approved law and ensures that Title I does what was intended in 1965: help the least-advantaged kids learn and progress.

Without reauthorization of NCLB, the federal government will continue to amass power and will repeat history, leaving too much authority in the hands of Washington bureaucrats and special interests.

When I think about the history of ESEA, I am angered that programs created to support the needs of our students have instead become a cash cow for mediocrity. The Student Success Act represents the epitome of both a conservative agenda and a move toward providing equity and educational justice to children whose parents and teachers are their best advocates. Failing to pass it reinforces bad policy and does nothing to help our children or our nation gain a competitive edge.

Whether one likes Common Core, believes in school choice, or appreciates the role of standards and measurement, the current Washington policy regime undermines a state’s proclivity to make fundamental decisions regarding these and other education policies without coercive processes. I have seen firsthand when governors across the nation lead well and strong with encouragement — not coercion — from officials at the federal level.

The Student Success Act represents precisely the right kind of balance that can once again ensure achievement-focused education reforms. It’s time to make history, not repeat it, so that our kids no longer are condemned to growing up in a nation at risk.

Jeanne Allen is senior fellow and president emeritus of the Center for Education Reform, which she founded in 1993.