Washington should not be making decisions about our kids’ schooling

Congress passed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2001 to address the growing evidence that many children in America were not receiving quality instruction. The goal of this law was to improve the transparency of how our schools were performing, so that no student was overlooked under broad labels of “good” and “bad” schools. One of the lasting, positive legacies of NCLB is the recognition that the performance of every student counts. Although NCLB exposed shortcomings in many schools, the fixes it prescribed, such as Adequate Yearly Progress, were implemented with very little flexibility and did not recognize the varying levels of successes and challenges our nation’s 95,000 schools might have. We now have proof that centralizing this planning at the federal level does not work. Schools in New York City look very different than schools in my home state of Wyoming. They require very different resources, improvement strategies and measures of success.

After passage of last year’s heavy-handed healthcare reform legislation, America cannot afford another similar federal government takeover of our nation’s schools. Instead of designing a system in which the Department of Education becomes a federal school board and the secretary of Education acts as America’s superintendent, shackling our states with rigid federal mandates, states should determine high standards that prepare students for college and competitive careers. This is why I am working with Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), with support from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, to fix No Child Left Behind. States should have the tools and flexibility they need so their local schools can provide our children with the best possible education they deserve.

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I believe we should empower parents with up-to-date information they can understand about their child’s progress in school and the quality of the education they are receiving. Useful information like this will help parents, teachers, principals and taxpayers focus on when and where school improvements are needed. The success of our future generation depends on the quality of our schools today.

America’s role as a global leader in innovation depends on a skilled and educated workforce, especially with the fierce competition from emerging economies like China and India that are putting an increased focus on math and science. It is crucial that America’s students graduate from high school with the important knowledge and skills needed to attend college and enter the workforce without remediation. We must understand, however, that not every student will ultimately choose a four-year college or university as the next step after high school. Whether these students pursue certificates in a specific trade, a two-year degree later as an adult, or some other route, the goal should be the same: to ensure that these students are equally prepared and held to the same high expectations. This is critical toward addressing our nation’s staggering dropout rate, which stands at more than 6,000 students every day. Students who leave school early will collectively face more than $74 million in lost wages over their lifetime. At this rate America will find itself without the talent it needs to take on the high-skilled, high-paying jobs that will play an important part of the increasingly globalized economy.

Our nation’s struggling schools need the flexibility to implement standards that help every student succeed, without burdensome federal regulations. We do not need bureaucrats in Washington acting as the nation’s school board. The challenge facing Congress will be to take the important lessons learned from No Child Left Behind and allow states to implement education programs that best meet their unique needs. Partnering with states on how children are educated, rather than deciding for them, should be a lesson plan that even Washington can approve.

Enzi is the ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.