By Casey Given
After years of inaction and anticipation, Senator Tom Hark introduced a bill amending the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) on Tuesday, marking the first attempt to update America’s seminal schooling law since 2001. Since its original enactment in 1965, ESEA has traditionally been renewed every presidential administration, the last reform being President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
However, under Congress’s bipartisan gridlock characteristic of the Obama era, no significant movement towards ESEA reform has been seen in recent years. While it’s certainly encouraging to hear that Congress is finally turning its attention towards education, Senator Harkin’s ESEA update – retitled as the “Strengthening America’s Schools Act” – only cements the burdensome regulations Washington has pushed on state and local education agencies for years.
Due to the bleak prospects of renewing ESEA in Congress, the Department of Education (ED) is executing President Obama’s education agenda through other means since he took office. In 2009, it announced the Race to the Top initiative, enticing states with a slice of $4.35 billion if they adopted “college- and career-ready standards.” Similarly in 2012, ED started handing out waivers from some of No Child Left Behind’s most burdensome regulations to states that adopted “college- and career-ready standards.”
Both initiatives also encouraged adoption of the Common Core State Standards by asking states to participate “in a consortium of States that—[are] working towards jointly developing and adopting a common set of K-12 standards.” Forty-five states subsequently adopted Common Core, and almost all 50 adjusted their standards to be “college- and career-ready.” The Strengthening America’s Schools Act largely cements these backdoor policies into law, requiring states to adopt the educational polices set forth by Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind’s waivers.
In fact, Title I of the Act is unsurprisingly called “College and Career Readiness for All Students” and requires each state to demonstrate to the Department of Education that their standards teach “appropriate career skills” and/or have been “voluntarily adopted by a significant number of States” (read: Common Core). In essence, Strengthening America’s Schools simple repeats the same old song and dance of the Obama administration of enticing states to fit their standards and assessments to Uncle Sam’s liking. Only this time, it’s not enticement – it’s law.
Such command-and-control has not worked in the 48 years since ESEA’s passage, and they will certainly not work now. As our sister organization Americans for Prosperity Foundation highlighted recently in its January report on school choice, test scores and graduation rates have flatlined over the arch of ESEA’s history. Students in charter schools and opportunity scholarships, on the other hand, have shown significant gains when freed from the federal government’s burdensome regulations.
Instead of adding more red tape, Congress should look at rolling back or completely eliminating the federal government’s role in education. This is not a radical position. The Department of Education was only founded in 1979, and, as late as 1996, the Republican Party called for its abolishment in their platform. Just as markets drive human prosperity by relying on local knowledge and allowing consumers freedom to pick their product, America’s public schools should adopt the same formula for success. Until then, the federal government will continue to fail in “Strengthening America’s Schools.”