Lawmakers Push for More State, Local Flexibility Under NCLB

Published May 1, 2007

As Congressional committees opened hearings on reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in mid-March, conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill unveiled a proposal to give states greater freedom and flexibility in how federal funds for education are used.

At a March 15 news conference, U.S. Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and John Cornyn (R-TX) and Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) announced their introduction of the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success, or A PLUS, Acts.

“States should be given the flexibility to design educational programs that fit the local needs of individual districts, parents, and children,” Cornyn explained. “This bill will reduce the bureaucratic red tape that often stands in the way of results, accountability, and superior schools.”

DeMint suggested greater flexibility and state control are necessary to spur needed reforms.

“While No Child Left Behind measures and confirms the failures of public schools, it is not doing enough to improve them,” DeMint said.

Five-Year Contracts

The Cornyn-DeMint A PLUS legislation (S. 893) would give states the opportunity to establish a five-year performance agreement with the U.S. Department of Education. Under the contract, states would be free to consolidate funds from federal education programs and redirect that funding toward state-level initiatives.

In exchange for this freedom, states would maintain state-level testing and establish academic goals. States would have to meet those goals in order to continue the performance agreement at the end of the term.

The proposal marks a distinct shift from NCLB’s current accountability measures. States would have greater freedom to design and implement their own state tests, although they would still be required to test students annually, report information to parents and the public, and disaggregate data for student subgroups.

House Proposal

Hoekstra, lead sponsor of companion legislation in the House of Representatives (H.R. 1539), stated his bill aims to end the trend toward greater centralization in education.

“Congress has gone from overwhelmingly voting against national testing in 1998 to the largest intrusion into education since the Department of Education was created in 1979 in No Child Left Behind,” Hoekstra noted. “The federal government cannot continue to impose more testing, more costly mandates, and more penalties.”

The House version of the A PLUS plan would give states the opportunity to make a declaration of intent to reclaim autonomy of education policymaking authority. Under that declaration, the state would be free to use its share of federal funding on local initiatives with basic guidelines from Washington.

Capitol Hill Prospects

The joint news conference was held days after a bicameral committee hearing that began the Congressional NCLB reauthorization process. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) have stated they intend to move the reauthorization process forward this year.

The Cornyn-DeMint A PLUS plan was introduced with five original sponsors in the Senate, including Sens. Mel Martinez (R-FL) and Sam Brownback (R-KS), who spoke at the Capitol Hill news conference. In the House, 52 Republicans are sponsoring the Hoekstra plan, including Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Missouri).

With Democratic leaders and the Bush administration advocating renewal of NCLB, it is uncertain whether a fundamental reform approach will have any chance during the reauthorization process.

But Hoekstra is confident in the process, noting voters are being given the opportunity to change the political dynamics by speaking out in favor of restoring state and local control in education.

Dan Lips ([email protected]) is an education analyst at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

For more information …

“A Better Answer for Education: Reviving State and Local Policymaking Authority,” by Sens. John Cornyn and Jim DeMint, Heritage Lecture #994, February 20, 2007,