Ditching No Child Left Behind – all of it

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If you saw last week’s New York Times headline, “Obama Turns Some Education Powers Back to States,” you might have wondered which powers the federal government plans on handing back. You’d be right to wonder. The feds don’t hand back power very often.

At  issue, of course, is the law No Child Left Behind (NCLB), now in its  tenth year. To understand what the news is all about, you need to  understand what No Child Left Behind means for your child’s school.

  • Every  year, the federal government offers – and South Carolina legislators  accept – around $300 million in No Child Left Behind funds. For that  price, federal education bureaucrats buy the right to impose one model of education – a standards and test-driven model – on all the state’s public schools.
  • NCLB  standards stress math and reading, and de-emphasize history, civics,  economics, music, and art. South Carolina school administrators and  teachers have no choice but to make their schools’ curriculums reflect  NCLB’s emphasis. (See the Center on Education Policy’s report here.)
  • NCLB  forces schools to meet up to 33 goals. If a school fails to meet even  one of those goals, the federal government can deem that school a  failure and force it to restructure. In fact, the feds have done that to  at least one South Carolina school.

It’s easy to see, then,  why No Child Left Behind has been so unpopular – and therefore why the  Obama administration recently announced it would allow states receiving  NCLB funds to apply for “waivers.”

Getting one of these federal  “waivers,” however, doesn’t mean states are free to take the money with  no strings attached – that is, without abiding by the federal  government’s demands. Here’s what it means:

  • South Carolina’s  public education system will still be dependent on Washington DC for  yearly bailouts of roughly $300 million. So, for example, instead of  finding a way to fund poor school districts adequately, we’ll keep  getting DC to do it.
  • The state’s Department of Education will still be required to administer federally mandated assessments.
  • South Carolina will still be at the mercy of whatever new federal regulations the U.S. Department of Education dreams up.

In  essence, getting a “waiver” wouldn’t mean an end to federal strings. It  would exchange a tight set of strings for a slightly looser set of  strings.

So should South Carolina apply for the waiver or not?

Perhaps  the more important question to ask is this: Why are states in the  position of having to get permission from the federal government to  improve their public education systems in the first place? The federal  government has no Constitutional role in education, and it’s extremely  far-fetched to think a building full of bureaucrats 400 miles from South  Carolina has the capacity to manage our state’s school system in a way  that improves its quality.

It’s worth asking, then, what would it look like if South Carolina were to refuse No Child Left Behind Funds altogether?

  • South Carolina could decide what to teach and how to teach it.
  • Without  NCLB funds, South Carolina can re-introduce parental input into public  education. With NCLB funds, by contrast, parental input is limited by  inflexible federal mandates.
  • The definition of “student success”  would no longer be determined by education bureaucrats in Washington  DC, but by South Carolinians in South Carolina.
  • Rather than  mindlessly trying to meet arbitrary federal criteria, the South Carolina  public school system would be free to create new, innovative ways of  fixing failing schools.

What South Carolina needs isn’t more federal money or looser federal mandates. What we need is independence.

Copyright © 2011 South Carolina Policy Council

This material should not be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.

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