Conservative Education Reform That Conservatives Misunderstand

Jeanne Allen | National Review | April 7, 2015 –

More than three decades ago, a historic report ushered in education reforms aimed at raising standards, holding schools accountable for students’ performance, and giving parents and teachers more power. President Ronald Reagan would attend 51 meetings to discuss the findings of A Nation at Risk and urge states to adopt academic standards that spelled out what students should know and be able to do, measured by tests and reported to parents to inform them of their children’s and schools’ performance.

Conservatives should be proud of their record in addressing the crisis of education. Yet current attitudes toward congressional action on federal education policy are a reminder of that famous admonition that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

For nearly twenty years after the nation began its famous assault on mediocrity in 1983, states would adopt rigorous standards and high-stakes tests, enact school-choice programs, and provide for heightened performance evaluations of schools and their staffs. But a fearful establishment of education groups then weakened standards and created roadblocks to more successful innovation.

As data borne out of those first standards-based tests began to reveal a pernicious achievement gap, a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers took on the controversial task of reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) so that states and schools would have to enact serious accountability measures to address the education crisis. And so No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was established in 2002, reasserting the importance of accountability and choice with a renewed focus on student outcomes. And NCLB worked, until interest groups and the natural tendencies of the federal bureaucracy to rewrite legislative intent had their way.

With a requirement for reauthorization of NCLB now years overdue, congressional leaders have proposed new ways to properly scale the federal role in education. The Student Success Act, currently before the House of Representatives, is one such noble effort. It would remove the tidal wave of mandates that have hit schools as a result of NCLB tinkering, Race to the Top, and other misguided efforts

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