NCLB agreement would overhaul Uncle Sam's role in schooling
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There is welcome news on the education front. House and Senate negotiators have settled on an overhaul of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the major federal law governing K-12 education. After a long year of jousting, in which the House and Senate each passed their own reauthorization bills, the successful conference means that Congress is likely only weeks away from concluding its long-overdue effort to fix NCLB.

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A George W. Bush-era law whose authorization expired more than a half-decade ago, NCLB initially offered some useful corrections as far as boosting educational transparency and spurring states to take school accountability more seriously. But NCLB has outlived whatever virtues it had. Years ago, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan termed the law "broken." NCLB has contributed to over-testing, ill-conceived accountability systems, ineffective interventions and federal micromanagement of state policy through the Obama administration's waiver scheme.

The conference agreement scraps NCLB's ludicrous mandate that 100 percent of students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Needless to say, that did not happen. Instead, this pleasant but nonserious requirement led to the same kind of mischief and data manipulation that one would expect if Congress passed a law decreeing a cessation of crime or traffic fatalities. It gets Congress out of the business of trying to dictate school accountability or school improvement strategies — two tasks for which it is manifestly ill-equipped. Perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out that measuring and improving is an exquisitely human task that works vastly better when governed up close than from the nation's capital.

The conference bill does retain NCLB's transparency provisions. It retains NCLB's modest mandate that, in exchange for federal Title I funds, states test all students in reading and math once each year in grades three through eight and again in high school, and that states test all students in science once in elementary, middle and high school. It also retains NCLB's requirement that states report these results and break them out for various demographic subgroups.

The new bill also continues to require that states have accountability systems that make use of this data. How states choose to construct these systems and how states choose to address "failing" schools, however, are decisions over which state officials will have a great deal of autonomy. States must flag for intervention the schools identified as the bottom 5 percent under their new accountability systems; high schools that graduate less than two-thirds of their students; and schools that fail to reach state subgroup targets, but the design of the accountability systems and the ensuing interventions are to be wholly determined by state officials. (For those advocates and Washington wonks who fear that those in the states can't be trusted with this responsibility, a wonderfully American solution is at hand: They're free to vacate their Beltway digs and go work their magic in the state of their choice.)

The bill takes pains to address concerns from both right and left that, in the Obama-Duncan years, the U.S. Department of Education has increasingly sought to operate like a national school board. The new bill contains unprecedented language restricting the secretary of Education's discretion and eliminating his or her ability to use the law to shape state policy. It ends the invasive and problematic Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs. It contains strong language prohibiting federal officials from seeking to influence state academic standards (think of this as the "no more federal support for the Common Core" provision). It puts an end to the federal government telling states how to improve teacher quality or evaluate teachers.

All in all, it's quite a legislative accomplishment. That's doubly true because some observers, including me, thought it would be enormously difficult to negotiate a deal that could make it through the House without facing a White House veto. But they seem to have done it. That's a credit to the chairs of the House and Senate education committees, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) and Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderSenate panel rejects Trump funding cuts on Energy Department programs Governors-turned-senators meet to talk healthcare With healthcare bill derailed, GOP wonders: What now? MORE (R-Tenn.), and also to the ranking minority members on each, Rep. Bobby ScottBobby ScottRepublicans aim to kill off Obama franchise standard Bipartisan group defends national security against climate risk Ellison sings in celebration of Minneapolis approving minimum wage MORE (D-Va.) and Sen. Patty MurrayPatty MurrayLawmakers send McCain well wishes after cancer diagnosis Trump labor board nominees advance in Senate Dems tout failure of GOP healthcare bill MORE (D-Wash.). And it's a credit to the professionalism and acumen of their staffs.

In recent years, it has sometimes seemed that Capitol Hill Republicans were the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Even this past year, after the GOP took the Senate and earned its biggest House majority in more than a half-century, there have been few policy wins to show for it. Especially in that light, this bill marks a happy turn. It represents a principled solution to real problems for students and families, starkly reverses more than a decade of federal control over K-12 schooling, and does so in a deliberate and bipartisan fashion.

The floor votes are expected in December. The die is not yet cast. But we're surprisingly close to some reassuring evidence that Congress can indeed still work the way it's supposed to.

Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of "Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit: Lessons from a Half-Century of Federal Efforts to Improve America’s Schools."