Federal Bill Proposes Restoring State and Local Control of Schools

Published September 1, 2006

In July, U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-CO) introduced the Partnership for Academic Success in the States (PASS) Act (H.R. 5854). The legislation would allow 10 states to enter into contract agreements with the U.S. Department of Education. The states would receive greater freedom and flexibility to direct their education policies; in exchange, they would be required to hold schools accountable for improving academic performance.

“Congressman Beauprez believes this is an important first step in reforming our nation’s education policy,” explained Beauprez spokeswoman Corinne Hirsch. “Educational needs are best met at the local level, as students’ needs vary in different parts of the nation. The PASS Act will help states and local educational agencies regain their autonomy in the education arena.”

The PASS Act would allow participating states to consolidate some federal education funding streams and redirect funding toward state-controlled initiatives designed to improve student learning. States would also be freed from some federal education regulations, such as the No Child Left Behind Act’s (NCLB) highly qualified teachers provision, which requires teachers to have state certification and meet competency requirements in core subject areas.

Exchange Program

In exchange for the increased freedom and autonomy, the states would be required to maintain academic standards and to test students annually to demonstrate improved academic achievement. They would be eligible for performance bonuses if they reduce the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their peers on student examinations by 25 percent or more.

After four years, the federal education secretary would be allowed to continue or terminate the agreement, with all 10 states or on a case-by-case basis.

The PASS Act follows in the tradition of past reform initiatives designed to restore state and local control of education. In the late 1990s, conservatives in Congress proposed the Academic Achievement for All Act (called “Straight A’s”), which would have given all states the opportunity to enter into similar contractual agreements with the Department of Education. Under the Straight A’s plan, states would have been given the freedom and flexibility to redirect federal education funding to state-directed initiatives to benefit student learning. States would have had an incentive to improve student learning–those that did not risked returning to the previous regime of federal regulations.

A pilot version of Straight A’s for 10 states passed the House of Representatives in October 1999 but got no farther, as the legislation was not approved by the Senate. During congressional debate over NCLB in 2001, an amendment to include a Straight A’s pilot project was defeated in the House Education & Workforce Committee.

Hot Topic

Four years later, the idea of giving state policymakers greater freedom in education is reemerging as Congress is about to debate NCLB’s reauthorization in 2007.

Don Soifer, executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based research organization, analyzed Beauprez’s PASS Act proposal in the context of past Straight A’s reform initiatives.

“[It] effectively captures the spirit, and the key details, of the legislation that passed the House in 1999,” Soifer explained.

Though he supports Beauprez’s bill overall, Soifer noted it has some shortcomings.

“[It] shares two weaknesses of the plan that passed the House: holding harmless Title I spending and limiting the plan to a pilot for selected states. Public school choice–one of NCLB’s most prescriptive measures–is also protected,” Soifer said. “But this proposal should appeal to many on the left and right. Like the 1999 plan, it would move education decision-making considerably closer to parents and farther from federal bureaucrats.”

Hirsch shared Soifer’s optimism regarding the proposal’s potential for broad appeal.

“This legislation will have a wide range of support, both in Congress and across the country,” Hirsch explained. “I think most everyone would agree that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to education. Allowing individual states to address their individual needs will be a popular concept.”

Dan Lips ([email protected]) is a policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.