GOP majority = less government

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A Republican renewal in Congress and in statehouses across the nation changes the political dynamic in favor of more limited government.
But along with restraining runaway spending and checking bureaucratic expansion, there is a real chance to shift the balance of power in education policy from Washington, D.C. back to the states where it belongs
At least four-dozen new Republicans will enter the House of Representatives and five new Republican senators will take office with a mandate not merely to slow or contain the expansion of federal power, but to roll it back.
Even if they cannot muster the votes to put the education department out of business for good, they have the power and the numbers to advance innovative reforms.
Next year Congress will have to reconsider President Obama’s signature reform initiative, Race to the Top, and George W. Bush’s major education reform legacy, No Child Left Behind. And they’ll have a chance to restore educational opportunity for thousands of low-income and minority students in Washington, D.C.
The obstacles — and the interests dedicated to preserving the status quo — are huge.
Without much fanfare, the federal government has poured nearly $200 billion into public education since Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. About $110 billion came in the form of “one-time” stimulus money that states used to fund ongoing programs — mostly to keep thousands of dues-paying teachers union members on the payroll.
Race to the Top, the $4.35 billion competitive grant competition launched last year and funded by the 2009 stimulus, sent grants to 11 states and the District of Columbia. The contest for grants was a farce, beset by politics and undermined by teachers-union vetoes.
What’s worse, Race to the Top is one-time money parceled out over several years, but the mandates and obligations it brings will live on for decades. A far bigger burden to the states is the 2002 No Child Left Behind law. At the heart of it is a mandate prescribing 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014. The means to achieving that end include high-stakes tests and harsh remedies, including sanctions and the threat of state and federal receivership.
The results were predictable: Most states dumbed down their standards and redefined “proficiency” to avoid the federal law’s harsh penalties and federal K-12 spending rose more than 50 percent from 2002 through 2008. Republicans and Democrats agree states need more “flexibility” under No Child Left Behind, but few question the basic idea of such powerful federal intervention.
House Speaker-designate John Boehner, R-Ohio, was one of the law’s architects and he still wants to force states to comply with national standards. Similarly, upcoming House Education and Labor Committee chair John Kline, R-Minn. has told interviewers, “No Child Left Behind is the law. It’s moving forward.”
Why? The law places an impossible burden on the states while failing to achieve its goal of raising student achievement. The remedy for failed policy isn’t to double down; it’s to end the policy.
As Congress debates this foundering federal education program, it should not miss the chance to revive a rare successful one.
Washington D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program awarded more than 3,700 students with vouchers for up to $7,500 to attend the school of their choice. Studies showed students in the program significantly improved their reading scores and parents were highly satisfied with the quality of the education their children received.
But the Obama administration phased out the $13 million program last year, and Democratic leaders quashed a bipartisan effort in Congress to revive it.
Even with a Democrat-controlled Senate, the new Congress will have the votes to resurrect the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships.
Obama would then have to explain why he denies low-income kids the same education he provides his own daughters.
“Flexibility” and “local control” are Republican mantras, but without strong policies they’re just empty slogans.
A smaller role for the federal government would mean a greater role for parents and local leaders in education. Now is no time for timidity.

Ben Boychuk
The Heartland Institute