Think Tank Calls for Flexibility to Boost Student Achievement

Published May 1, 1999

While Congress debates extending the 12-state Education Flexibility Partnership Demonstration Act of 1994 to all 50 states, education policy analysts at The Heritage Foundation say the so-called Ed-Flex bill does not go far enough.

The flexibility mechanisms in the Ed-Flex bill continue to rely on President Clinton’s command-and-control approach, they say, putting the 50 states on short leashes and ordering them to implement the federal government’s ideas for improving student performance. The Heritage researchers propose instead a flexibility model preferred by most governors, where individual states are unleashed in exchange for results.

“If you say to the states, ‘We’ll hold you accountable. You just improve student performance, and we’ll give you the money,’ that will give all the governors the flexibility to get the job done,” said Gray Davis, governor of California, on NBC’s Meet the Press during the National Governors’ Association annual meeting in February.

To give the states their desired flexibility, Heritage Foundation policy analysts Nina Shokraii Rees and Kirk A. Johnson propose that Congress create a “Super” Ed-Flex program. When Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) and Goals 2000, recommend Rees and Johnson, it should take steps to expand the number of Ed-Flex programs from 6 to 18 and to strengthen the law’s accountability standards.

Under the Super Ed-Flex plan, the role of the federal government would not be to impose one-size-fits-all policy prescriptions or to micro-manage state education reform efforts. Instead, the federal government would provide funding to states and localities in exchange for proof of agreed-upon results. Continued federal funding would depend on how well individual states deliver improved academic achievement, rather than on how well they follow bureaucratic procedures.

“We need the federal government as a limited partner and us as a general partner,” Kentucky Governor Paul E. Patton recently told the Los Angeles Times. The Super Ed-Flex approach, say Rees and Johnson, respects this balance of power between the states and the federal government and acknowledges that education is a state and local responsibility. It also assures that every federal dollar spent on education is a dollar spent to boost academic achievement.

Super Ed-Flex would allow states and local school districts to apply federal funds–including Title I and other ESEA funds–to the fulfillment of their own unique goals. For example, in Arkansas, Governor Mike Huckabee’s top priority is to equalize school funding. In California, Davis wants to invest in reading, teacher quality, and school accountability initiatives. In Florida, Governor Jeb Bush wants to provide scholarships to students in the state’s worst-performing schools. Under current law, federal funds cannot easily be directed to such initiatives.

Although there is broad bipartisan support for expanding the current Ed-Flex program, its funds are of little value to such initiatives. According to a U.S. General Accounting Office report last September, Ed-Flex’s narrowly structured waivers “generally do not address school districts’ major concerns.”

Ed-Flex doesn’t save money for local school districts, either. The GAO report concluded that “federal flexibility efforts neither reduce districts’ financial obligations nor provide additional federal dollars.” Moreover, since the flexibility is limited to specific programs, the districts’ “ability to reduce administrative effort and streamline procedures is also limited.”

In its current form, Ed-Flex is not clear in defining academic achievement as its ultimate goal. Although boosting student achievement is clearly a high priority for voters and elected officials, the current Ed-Flex program does not include accountability measures to ensure that federal funds achieve that goal.

As an example, Rees and Johnson estimate that California would receive over $1.5 billion of flexible federal money if their Super Ed-Flex proposal were adopted. Those funds could be used to implement the governor’s reading initiative or to boost teacher quality. However, the state would ultimately have to prove to parents, taxpayers, and the U.S. Secretary of Education that its investments had boosted student achievement.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.