House Republicans passed a bill on Friday by a staunchly partisan margin that, if enacted, would reverse the direction that the federal government has trended towards for decades in education.
With the expiration of No Child Left Behind in 2007, and with Republicans and Democrats unable to manufacture an updated law since then, the appropriation of federal education funding is well overdue for reform. Although the House bill is unlikely to garner necessary bipartisan support in the Senate, and President Obama has promised to veto it should it appear on his desk, it begins the framework for a national discussion about the non-monetary role of the federal government in education: one that is likewise well overdue.
The House bill reduces future educational spending by freezing funds at their current levels, which are now lower than past years because of the sequester. Schools nationwide would essentially receive a cumulative $1 billion less annually. The cornerstone of the bill, however, does not pertain to funding, but rather the standards with which funding must be met.
No Child Left Behind gives the federal government the capacity to impose punitive measures on schools that do not reach a certain threshold for their annual testing, as well as develops proposals for helping schools to reach this threshold. The House bill maintains the same mandatory testing that No Child Left Behind uses to assess school achievement, but it does not allow the federal government to sanction schools for their poor performance. Instead, the bill renders power to state governments to analyze data and enact specific, locally appropriate measures to improve education.
Education is too intimate and too particular an initiative to be generalized on a national scale. Federal punishments indeed incentivize performance, but they also only make it more difficult for struggling schools to improve. Ironically, students often are "left behind" because teachers must teach-to-the-test in order to maximize federal funding.
In today's execution of the law, moreover, the punitive aspect has been largely obfuscated. President Obama began issuing waivers to states in 2011 that essentially exempt them from the automatic sanctions that result from inadequate school performance. If the federal government is going to have the ability to hold schools to certain standards in order to receive funding, then it ought to hold schools to these standards. Otherwise, educational progress will remain stagnant.
The ultimate sum of money allotted to each school is less significant than the strategies that are used to maximize these funds. Adversaries of the House bill will likely demand that federal funding return to its presequester level. $1 billion in either direction, however, will not affect the outcome of our schools. Local officials who understand the specific needs of specific districts should be the ones assessing how to make progress, and the federal government should encourage these initiatives as well as stop complicating them with cumbersome regulations and arbitrary standards. If the federal government really wants to effect tangible progress in our educational system, they should adapt union reform, but they should otherwise allow local professionals to do what is necessary.