Start Here

The Republican Congress can advance its principles and prove it can govern by beating back federal overreach in public education.

No Child Left Behind failed.

What should Republicans do with their new control of Congress? Help kids get a good education.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock

Shortly after taking the reins as Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, a man dubbed “Dr. No” for his determined opposition to President Obama’s domestic agenda, told CNN’s State of the Union that Americans “want us to look for things to agree on and see if we can make progress for the country.” This is in keeping with McConnell’s earlier pledge to pass legislation, and his optimistic November declaration that “this gridlock and dysfunction can be ended.” I happen to think that there is much to be said for gridlock, particularly when it reflects principled disagreement. The chief reason Congress has so far failed to pass sweeping immigration or tax reform legislation is that Americans are as divided on these issues as their elected representatives, and there is nothing remotely dishonorable about standing athwart history, yelling Stop. That doesn’t change the fact that if Republicans hope to hold on to Congress and win the White House in 2016, when the electorate will be less old, less white, and less conservative than it was this past fall, they need to demonstrate that they can do more than just oppose. They need to offer a compelling domestic agenda of their own, something they’ve utterly failed to do during the Obama years.

So where is the best place for Republicans to make their mark over the next few months? One can easily imagine the congressional GOP working with the White House on overhauling corporate taxes, reining in a patent system run amok, and promoting freer trade, and progress on these fronts would be very welcome. But if I were in charge, I’d focus the party’s energies on beating back federal overreach in public education. Not only would this be in line with conservative principles—it might win over parents and teachers who’d otherwise never dream of voting Republican.

Ever since LBJ’s Great Society, when the federal government ramped up its spending on public schools, conservatives have warned that federal funding would eventually lead to federal control. Back in 1978, as Congress debated the creation of a federal department of education, Harrison Schmitt, at the time a GOP senator from New Mexico, peered into its future, and he didn’t like what he saw. In a long-forgotten address, Schmitt laid out a step-by-step process by which the federal government would seize control of public education. First, he imagined that the department would at some point establish a series of national “advisory” standards. Next, these “advisory” standards would become compulsory, lest federal aid be discontinued. And then, of course, the department would have no choice but to mandate tests to ensure that the new compulsory standards were being met. Finally, Schmitt warned, “state and local authorities will be coerced into acceptance of a standardized curriculum as the ‘only possible’ guarantee of meeting compulsory standards.”

How far along are we on Schmitt’s road to educational serfdom? If you ask grassroots activists hell-bent on scrapping the new Common Core State Standards initiative, the answer is very far indeed. Over the past few years, the Common Core, a fairly banal checklist of reading and math skills that has been adopted by the vast majority of states, has sparked fierce resistance, which has already led three states—Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina—to jettison the standards, with more states likely to follow. This is despite the fact that the Obama administration has leaned heavily on states to adopt the Common Core, and that virtually the entire education reform establishment, including Republican luminaries like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, stand behind it.

Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, does a masterful job of laying out the battle lines in a recent essay in National Affairs. The short version is that Tea Party conservatives fear that the Common Core (or, as they like to call it, “Obamacore”) will eventually morph into a standardized federal curriculum that will be imposed on public schools across the country, just as Schmitt feared. Teachers unions see it as part of a larger assault on the interests of their members, who dread the prospect of being judged on the basis of how their students fare on standardized tests. Many parents, meanwhile, worry that the Common Core will crowd out the teaching of history, literature, and music, among other things, and that it will turn their children into test-taking automatons. These fears are almost certainly overblown. The Common Core is not in itself a grave threat to public education. If anything, the standards it sets are more lame than menacing.

But the fight against the Common Core is not really about the Common Core. Rather, it is about the rigid rules and regulations that are making life a living hell for teachers, administrators, and students. In many school districts, the small trickle of standardized tests of yesteryear has become a flood. Teachers are constantly fending off contradictory directives from their administrators, and administrators are struggling to keep up with ever-changing, ever-expanding requirements from state education agencies that, in turn, are struggling to keep up with the seemingly arbitrary demands of federal bureaucrats. And perhaps the biggest driver of this brand of stultifying overregulation is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

If you haven’t been following education debates closely, you might be surprised to hear that No Child Left Behind has grown so unpopular. Maybe you remember it as one of the few bipartisan domestic policy measures that united the conservative Bush White House with liberals like then-Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and then-Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. Like many muddled compromises, alas, it has aged badly. To convince suburban swing voters that he was “a different kind of Republican” during his 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush emphasized that unlike his GOP predecessors, he fully embraced a federal role in education. Unlike Ronald Reagan or Newt Gingrich, Bush never talked up the idea of abolishing the U.S. Department of Education. What separated him from liberals who wanted a bigger federal role is that he wanted to promote choice and accountability while also granting states and school districts more flexibility. Once in office, Bush sketched out a vision for achieving those goals that even now sounds pretty attractive to conservatives. Schools receiving federal funds would have to test their students once a year from the third to the eighth grade, and they’d have to disclose educational outcomes by race and income. Schools that failed to adequately serve their low-income students would be given a couple of years to improve their performance. By the third year, low-income students attending schools that had failed to shape up could take their federal dollars to another school, public or private. Essentially, Bush was calling for transparency and a national voucher program for poor kids.

Of course, vouchers had no hope of ever garnering Democratic support, and Kennedy and Miller started to tweak Bush’s NCLB concept until it was all but unrecognizable. Instead of offering schools more flexibility, Kennedy and Miller stuffed misguided directives on teacher quality and harsh penalties for failing to meet federally determined goals into the law, tying the hands of innovative districts—exactly the opposite of what Bush hoped to achieve. Most importantly, the final legislation included a requirement that 100 percent of America’s elementary school students be proficient in reading and math by 2014, and if states failed to reach this ludicrous benchmark, they’d be punished.

NCLB hasn’t been all bad. By strong-arming states into disclosing educational outcomes by race and income, it has struck a blow for civil rights. Advocates can finally point to reliable data on how low-income and black and Latino kids are faring in public schools across the country, and which states and which districts are doing the best job of meeting their needs. If that were all the legislation had done, it would be a triumph. But by requiring universal proficiency, it set off a mad scramble to water down standards so that the proficiency bar was easier to clear and to subject students to a barrage of standardized tests to better prepare them for the annual tests required under NCLB.

The Obama administration, recognizing that NCLB gave it enormous power, used the threat of NCLB sanctions to advance a number of goals. Even with watered-down standards, no state has come close to achieving universal proficiency, so the Education Department, led by former Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan, started granting waivers to states that toed the line in some other way—by, say, adopting the Common Core standards, or a fashionable new approach to teacher evaluation. Some critics, like Derek Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, allege that the unrestrained use of these conditional waivers amounts to unconstitutional coercion on the part of the federal government. Unconstitutional or not, the intrusions have turned many educators against the federal role in education in recent years, and that creates an opportunity for the congressional GOP.

Right now, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairmen of the Senate and House education committees, are gearing up for an overhaul of NCLB, and they’re weighing how far to go in dialing back NCLB’s excesses. Back in 2011, Alexander wrote a New York Times op-ed that called for getting rid of the worst of NCLB’s micromanagement while retaining its emphasis on transparency, and one hopes he’ll follow through now that he has the power to do so. As Hess and his AEI colleague Andrew Kelly often argue, the federal government is simply not well-suited to running America’s schools. Solutions that work in Tucson, Arizona, aren’t necessarily going to fly in Memphis, Tennessee or Newton, Massachusetts. Instead of wielding threats, the federal government should focus on solving collective action problems, like funding basic research into the science of learning that state and local governments can’t or won’t pay for, and enforcing transparency requirements to provide parents and students with reliable information. Over time, this will make it easier for educators to build schools that better serve the needs of America’s very diverse student population.

The beauty of this more modest approach is that it attracts the support not just of conservatives who are forever wary of federal meddling, but also unionized teachers who feel jerked around by one-size-fits-all rules that threaten their autonomy. No, this doesn’t mean that conservatives will suddenly see eye to eye with the teachers unions on vouchers, pension reform, and any number of other issues, nor should they. Conservatives are absolutely right to want more innovation and competition in public education. But conservatives will have a much better shot at winning these policy debates if they understand that many teachers look to unions to protect them from bureaucrats run amok, which is something that conservatives, of all people, should appreciate. If Republicans can get education right, and if they can turn at least some unionized teachers into allies, they’ll have demonstrated that they can reach beyond their narrow base. Think of this as a dry run for selling the country on replacing Obamacare and modernizing the safety net, the big enchiladas of conservative domestic policy.