In Monday’s Washington Post, Education Secretary Arne Duncan was confident that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), will be reauthorized this year, arguing that “few areas are more suited for bipartisan action than education reform.”

But Duncan should take a step back and note that there are wildly differing views on exactly how to approach the country’s largest federal education law.

It’s true that voices across the political spectrum and much of the public are dissatisfied with the NCLB status quo. But Duncan shouldn’t count on consensus about the solution just yet, especially not with a new Congress in town. A reauthorization process would provoke a major clash between two very different philosophies about the federal role in education.

As rumors of an NCLB reauthorization float around, the most important question is: What is the proper role of the federal government in education?

One view, held by Duncan and the Obama Administration, is that the federal government can and should play an increasingly large role in American schools. They may have concluded that NCLB is broken, but that doesn’t mean they think the federal role in education is fundamentally flawed.

While the Administration will likely use the language of transparency and flexibility to rally for their reauthorization plan, their current course sets a trajectory for more government involvement in local education.

From Duncan’s point of view, special interest groups such as the education unions should have a place at the bargaining table, despite the fact that they have shown little interest in or willingness to compromise on what’s best for children. Duncan also sees a role for the federal government in what children across the country learn in school and has put federal money behind national standards and tests that would shape curriculum in schools across the land. But such a move would do more to empower bureaucrats in Washington than those closest to children.

The Administration’s philosophical approach to education reform also includes more spending from Washington. This was evidenced by the nearly $100 billion the Department of Education received through the stimulus and the $10 billion public education “edujobs” bailout last year.

The second philosophy believes that in order to help American students realize their education potential, Washington needs to get out of the way and stop trying to act as the nation’s school board. And because educational authority is constitutionally reserved to the states, there is very little the federal government can do to improve local education. The federal government not only lacks the authority to manage local schools but also provides less than 10 percent of school funding, meaning Washington is ill-equipped to serve the diverse needs of 50 million school children across the country.

Restoring federalism in education means moving dollars and decision making out of Washington and putting it back in the hands of state and local leaders. Conservative leaders in Congress have suggested that this will be their approach.

In any debate over NCLB, policymakers should keep two guiding principles in mind:

  1. Washington-centric education reform has been tried for more than four decades and has failed. More money and more federal programs are not the answer to improving education. The United States spends more than $10,000 per pupil per year, and per-pupil expenditures have nearly tripled since 1970. Yet reading ability has stagnated, achievement gaps persist, and graduation rates have idled. Federal intervention has not improved America’s schools.
  2. It’s time for a fundamentally different approach to education reform, one that empowers those closest to students. Distant, unelected bureaucrats in Washington are the farthest from students, yet they create much of the red tape local schools have to deal with. Education reform should begin to restore federalism in education by allowing states to bypass federal bureaucracy and use their share of federal education funding to meet their students’ needs and to act as laboratories of reform and innovation.

There is an alternative to NCLB that would go a long way in achieving these conservative principles: the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) plan, introduced in various iterations in recent years. Such a proposal would promote greater state and local control in education by allowing states to consolidate funding from dozens of federal education programs, bypass all the red tape, and direct resources to the most pressing education needs among their students. The A-PLUS plan also requires accountability through state-level testing and transparency about results for parents and taxpayers.

If this Administration is truly interested in using the reauthorization of NCLB to improve American education, it should back up its talk about flexibility and transparency by allowing states to opt out of burdensome federal mandates and direct money to the education priorities that make the most sense for their students. Coupled with requirements for transparency about results, such flexibility would ensure that the needs of students—not the demands of education unions, special interest groups, Washington bean-counters, and bureaucrats—will be met. Such an agenda is likely to garner broad support.