Educators urge reduced federal role in schools

‘National, generic model’ not working, House education committee is told

The federal government must reduce its footprint in education and give local school systems more flexibility to craft curricula and measure student performance, school leaders from across the country told a House committee hearing Thursday.

Yohance Maqubela, chief operating officer at the District’s Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, said the current “national, generic model” isn’t working, and Terry Grier, superintendent of Houston Independent School District, said lawmakers must find a “careful blend of accountability with flexibility.”

Rep. George Miller, California Democrat and ranking member on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, voiced support for a “thinner federal role” in what school districts do day to day, and Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and committee chairman, said the committee will begin writing an education bill meant to decrease the federal government’s role next month.

“Clearly, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, resulting in frustration among parents and educators and missed opportunities for students,” Mr. Kline said. “If we are going to move forward in education, Washington has to move in a new direction.”

Both the House and Senate are now working on legislation to replace former President George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind Act, which has fallen out of favor with Republicans, Democrats and educators across the country.

From left, Janet Barresi, Oklahoma superintendent of public instruction; Gary Amoroso, Lakeville, Minn., schools superintendent; Yohance Maqubela, CFO of Howard University Middle School of Math and Science; and Terry Grier, superintendent of Houston Independent School District, testify Thursday before a House panel on education reform. Mr. Grier said that lawmakers must find a "careful blend of accountability with flexibility" in those reforms. (Associated Press)

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From left, Janet Barresi, Oklahoma superintendent of public instruction; Gary Amoroso, Lakeville, ... more >

Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, plans to introduce a bill later this spring. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have called on Congress to pass legislation by August, in time for the next school year.

The need for reform is urgent, the White House has argued. The Department of Education has estimated 80 percent of public school districts could be labeled as “failing” by the end of this year under NCLB standards.

While it is unclear what the House and Senate bills will look like or how closely they will reflect Mr. Obama’s proposal, Mr. Kline said there is a “growing consensus” in the House that the answer is less intrusion by the federal government.

Members of the House committee asked Mr. Grier and the other school leaders who testified Thursday what direction Congress should take when overhauling education policy. Mr. Grier responded that 56 percent of the money his Houston schools get is earmarked by the federal government, sometimes resulting in millions of dollars forced into ineffective programs.

Meanwhile, he said, programs that work and innovative ideas to improve students’ test scores and graduation rates are starved for cash.

“We are up to the task … but we have to have some relief from these [federal] mandates,” Mr. Grier said.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican, said the House committee has been talking about reforming federal education policy since 2006 with virtually nothing to show for it.

“If somebody were judging us the way we’re judging these schools, we would probably be a failing Congress,” Mr. McKeon said.

Mr. Grier, Mr. Maqubela and the other witnesses who testified Thursday also advocated bypassing the states and sending federal dollars directly to districts, which they said would cut red tape and remove another level of mandates often imposed by state education departments.

He also urged Congress to remove the current uniform math-and-reading standards, saying schools should adopt their own standards, with state and federal government holding schools “accountable” at the end of the year by looking at graduation rates, dropout rates and other measures.

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