NCLB Opt-Out Bill Introduced in Senate

Published May 14, 2011

A bill by Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and John Cornyn (R-TX) would let states opt out of a reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act, giving them much broader authority to direct federal education funds to local education priorities.

DeMint and Cornyn introduced S. 827, the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) Act, in April. The bill establishes the following goals:

• “To give States and local communities maximum flexibility to determine how to boost academic achievement and implement education reforms”;

• “To reduce the administrative costs and compliance burden of Federal education programs in order to focus Federal resources on improving academic achievement”; and

• “To ensure that States and communities are accountable to the public for advancing the academic achievement of all students, especially disadvantaged children.”

The Obama administration announced earlier this year it would work with Congress to reauthorize No Child Left Behind before the start of the 2011-12 school year.

Five-Year Agreements
Although A-PLUS would free states from numerous mandates required under the 2002 federal education law, state officials and educators would not be exempt from all federal accountability requirements. The bill would allow states to enter into “performance agreements” with the Department of Education, empowering states to consolidate federal education funding awarded under NCLB for “any lawful education purpose.”

The performance agreements would last five years, after which a state must demonstrate students have made progress according to federal guidelines. States must prove student academic achievement has increased across the board, and that racial and ethnic achievement gaps have narrowed. States would also be required to disaggregate student demographic data.

If the state meets those terms, the Secretary of Education would be required to renew the performance agreement. If the state fails to meet the performance goals, however, the secretary must inform the state and give it an opportunity to submit a revised performance agreement plan.

DeMint and Cornyn say allowing states to opt out of more than 70 programs operated under NCLB would provide greater fiscal accountability for federal funds and accountability for school performance to parents and taxpayers. States currently spend an estimated seven million man-hours, at a cost of $141 million annually, to show compliance with NCLB mandates, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office study.

Old Concept Revived

DeMint and Cornyn sponsored similar legislation, also called A-PLUS, in 2007. That bill was also tied to a NCLB reauthorization, which stalled in Congress.

Added flexibility in education funding could reduce a significant amount of bureaucracy levied on states, said Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Education Freedom, and help return to what should be a limited federal role in education.

“Constitutionally, the federal government has no authority to interfere in education outside of prohibiting discrimination by state and local governments,” he said.

“A good way to begin to put Principal Sam back in his place—as long as it is understood that his removal is the only acceptable final answer—is to give states more control over the money that Sam sends them but which came from their citizens to begin with,” McCluskey said.

“At least then they would be able to allocate the funds according to their unique needs and challenges, not according to politicized formulas or priorities that Washington deems most important,” he added. “It’s not nearly enough, but it would be a good place to start.”

Reduced Bureaucracy Sought
Flexibility in federal funding would ultimately diminish the education bureaucracy’s power and reach, said Don Soifer, executive vice president of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute.

“Accountability for academic results in public education is imperative, but it’s a mistake to think that the insertion of federal bureaucrats into the process improves accountability,” Soifer said.

“In fact, the federal Education Department’s increasingly aggressive use of waivers from federal accountability requirements has obfuscated this accountability,” he added.

Soifer said concentrating education policymaking authority at the federal level may have produced some useful reforms, “but nothing you would call transformative.” 

“When Washington bureaucrats try to mandate educational innovation, the results are bound to be costly for both children and taxpayers,” Soifer said.

Lindsey Burke ([email protected]) is an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.