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We mean business on K-12 education

Congress gets to work this week on long-overdue legislation to reshape the federal role in America’s public schools and to more effectively educate our students.

Both the House and Senate bills reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) — known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) for the past 15 years – make important reforms by expanding charter schools, retaining annual testing, streamlining federal programs and requirements, and increasing transparency so parents, teachers, the business community, and the public can judge their local schools for themselves.

{mosads}The ESEA effectively ends the days of No Child Left Behind, but it doesn’t mean that the federal government has no role in ensuring our children receive the high-quality education they need to be productive citizens. The federal role should be limited, leaving K-12 education primarily up to state government, local schools districts and, of course, parents. But when the federal government is involved, it must make certain its policies hold schools accountable and require that tax dollars be spent wisely.

Billions of federal dollars are spent on education each year, and no taxpayer wants to see this investment wasted.  When federal dollars are being spent, it’s entirely appropriate to demand results for the investment. There must be a real focus on the bottom line, which in this case, is directing limited dollars to improve academic results for children whose states are identified as falling behind. This is a federal role that all conservatives and liberals should be able to get behind.

The government can also exercise accountability without the federal mandates of NCLB that were disliked by many school systems—and those mandates must go. But it remains in the national interest for progress to be measured for all students. The results should be released, and parents and taxpayers should be told the truth about our education system.  Finally, schools must take action to help students and groups of students that are falling behind the academic goals set by states.

Despite the progress both the House and Senate bills make in a number of areas, lawmakers can do more in supporting students who need the most academic help. The House and Senate bills do not do enough to direct funding to schools and students—and groups of students, including minorities and disabled children—that have not met state academic goals. In both bills, schools could fail to meet their own state’s goals for their students year after year, after year, and never be required to take any action. To us, that is simply unacceptable.  

Why does business care? Today’s elementary, middle school, and high school students are tomorrow’s workers. The quality of their education directly impacts the competitiveness of our workforce and the strength of our economy. So it should come as no surprise that the business community has a big stake in our education system, and a strong interest in seeing each and every student succeed in their studies. Indeed, our members tell us K-12 education ranks near the top of the list of things that matter the most.

Business leaders are not asking for Congress to pass a massive bill that manages every detail from Washington. Instead, we are simply asking for a law that makes it clear that the billions of dollars the feds send to states measure student academic progress and ensure that additional aid and supports are provided to students and groups of students who need help the most.

That’s a pretty simple request, but so far, neither body of Congress has responded. Until they do, the business community will not be able to fully support either the House or Senate’s proposals to reauthorize ESEA. We have waited a long time for this bill to move, but if we have to, we can wait a little longer. Educating America’s students is simply too important to not get right.  

Engler is president of Business Roundtable. Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.


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