- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009



Ensuring that all children in America have the opportunity to learn is an effort that cuts across party lines and ideologies. Of immediate concern is the fact that for more than four decades, rising federal funding and control of public education has failed to ensure that all children receive a quality education and that American students can compete with their peers around the country.

The recent selection of Arne Duncan to be the next Secretary of Education is an encouraging sign to supporters of public education reform. The Chicago Public School chief is known as a tough reformer who supports holding schools accountable for results and boosting performance by promoting new strategies like improving merit pay.

Like the President-elect, Arne Duncan supports charter schools - public schools that are held to high standards but given the freedom to innovate and offer new learning models to serve diverse populations of students. Chicago has seen the opening of dozens of new charter schools under Mr. Duncan’s tenure. A 2008 Rand Corporation study found that Chicago’s charter schools are improving students’ chances of graduating high school and entering college. Mr. Duncan should bring to Washington the lessons he learned firsthand about improving education by encouraging innovation and effective school leadership. Chicago has proven that improving education begins at the local level - school by school, classroom by classroom.

A good place to begin would be with No Child Left Behind (NCLB). While supportive of NCLB, Mr. Duncan has dealt with the challenge of implementing a one-size-fits-all federal law. In 2006, he testified before the House Education and Workforce Committee and spoke about the need to empower local leadership by offering flexibility: “Congress should maintain NCLB’s framework of high expectations and accountability. But it should also amend the law to give schools, districts and states the maximum amount of flexibility possible particularly districts like ours with a strong track record of academic achievement and tough accountability.”

We agree with Mr. Duncan. That is why we will be reintroducing the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) Act.

Our plan gives states the option to sign 5-year performance agreements with the Secretary of Education that allow the state to accept NCLB funding while opting out of the NCLB requirements. The performance agreements would define the achievement and proficiency goals and annual assessments necessary to achieve those goals. States would have to submit annual reports documenting their progress towards achieving their goals. Under our plan, the relationship between states and the federal government would be like the agreement between charter schools and the school district. States would be given the freedom and autonomy to use federal funding on local priorities to improve education. Yet, they would be required to meet basic federal requirements - including using targeted funds to assist disadvantaged children, conducting regular state-testing to measure student performance, and reporting schools’ results publicly.

We believe that the best path to improving public education in America is to empower local leaders with the freedom to innovate while requiring that schools are held accountable to parents and taxpayers for results. Just as charter schools have encouraged innovative solutions to improving learning, the A-PLUS Act will allow states and localities to develop new approaches for strengthening public education. In today’s difficult economy, offering states greater flexibility will have the added benefit of easing the burden on states and school districts facing the pressure of looming budget cuts. By freeing state and local governments from red tape and the high cost of bureaucratic compliance, more federal dollars could be used in the classroom, which would be welcome in many public schools.

In the 21st century, our nation must ensure that the next generation is prepared to meet the changing demands of an increasingly competitive global economy. Arne Duncan’s experience in Chicago proves that local reformers and school leaders can implement real change to improving education. Allowing and encouraging this type of effective reform leadership should be a top priority for the next Secretary of Education.

Republican John Cornyn is the junior senator from Texas and Republican Jim DeMint the junior senator from South Carolina.

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