Representatives, White House Spar Over Federal Role in Education

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Debate over the role of the federal government in public education is heating up between Congress and the White House. The House of Representatives is poised to take up a Republican proposal to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, but the Obama Administration isn’t staying still.

The House will probably pass a plan this week that would reduce federal regulation of K-12 education, giving state and local officials more freedom to assess teacher and student performance all the way to controlling the flow of Title I money, which is the largest stream of federal funding for students in low-income families, writes Tamar Lewin of The New York Times. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believes this plan will harm school districts which have a high number of poverty-level students that are currently receiving extra money. The proposal, however, could allow students to take their personal funding to the public school of their choice, an idea called “portability.”

Representative John Kline (R-Minnesota) said the plan would “provide American families the education system they deserve, not the one Washington wants,” but the White House says the plan is a threat to funding for the neediest schools. Duncan says large districts with a high number of black and Hispanic students stand to lose more than $3 billion in federal monies over the next six years if the plan is passed.

“If you look at the numbers, it’s a pretty devastating portrait of what could happen,” Mr. Duncan said. “Detroit could lose $265 million, L.A. three-quarters of a billion. If you go district by district, you get some idea of the severity.”

Kline called Duncan’s numbers nothing but “scare tactics.” Still, a report by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning, independent, nonpartisan think tank, reported that portability would help wealthy school districts and harm poorer districts.

If the Republican bill goes through, No Child Left Behind, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, would be disassembled. Acceptance of the bill would affect assessment of school and student performance, as well as allowing testing requirements to be decided by individual states. Efforts to reform and reauthorize the law have not passed since 2007, and Duncan is of the opinion that an agreement will not be forthcoming.

“It is not too late, but what we have seen is not encouraging,” he said. “They could give us an invitation to dance; it’s not impossible.”

The bill, known as HR5, the “Student Success Act”, was described by Kline in a press release as giving more authority to parents and schools.

The Student Success Act helps provide American families the education system they deserve, not the one Washington wants…we will continue to move forward in a manner that is open, transparent, and fair. America’s parents, teachers, and students have waited long enough for a new law that helps every child in every school receive an excellent education. This important bill will move us closer toward that goal, and I look forward to continuing the debate in the weeks ahead.

But some parents and constitutional conservatives believe that HR5 will minimize parental rights and reduce state control, which means testing requirements will not be lessened. They believe that state education policy will be directed through new NCLB policies and that curriculum will be molded around federal data collection.

Lindsey M. Burke writes for The Heritage Foundation, a conservative research think tank based in Washington D.C., that in order to restore education control to state, local, and parental entities, reauthorization should allow states to opt out of programs that fall under NCLB and provide a state option on Title I portability to public and private schools of choice. Reauthorization should also limit programs and spending, eliminate burdensome mandates like the federal Highly Qualified Teacher policy, and reiterate and strengthen provisions prohibiting the federal government from directing or interfering in curriculum.