The new makeup of the House of Representatives has brought with it new leadership on the House Education and Workforce Committee, and fresh ideas about education policy. Chairman John Kline (R-MN), at the helm of the committee that will be charged with overseeing a possible reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) this year, is already asking hard questions through a series of committee hearings on the effects of ever-growing federal involvement in education.

Last Thursday, the House Education and Workforce Committee held a full committee hearing to examine the challenges and opportunities facing the nation’s classrooms. The hearing included testimony from Ted Mitchell, CEO of the NewSchools Venture Fund; Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom; Dr. Tony Bennett, Indiana superintendent of public instruction; and Lisa Graham Keegan, founder and president of the Education Breakthrough Network.

The hearing comes as national policymakers consider a possible reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the implications for local schools. Each of the expert witnesses’ testimonies on the subject favored empowering those closer to the student. In his testimony, Bennett urged the federal government to get out of the way of states so that state and local leaders can more effectively meet student needs:

The best way the federal government can drive improved student performance is by setting high expectations, enforcing strict accountability measures, and allowing states the flexibility to work on behalf of their students. … I pledge this to you: if you set the bar high for states, put guardrails in place to ensure quality, provide support, enforce accountability, give states the flexibility to achieve those goals, and then get out of our way, we will not fail America’s school children. We will not fail to prepare our nation’s future leaders.

Later during the question-and-answer period, Bennett elaborated on just how his state has worked to improve learning. Indiana, he noted, revamped its whole teacher licensure process to emphasize content “so that chemistry teachers knew chemistry and history teachers knew history.” Bennett noted that the state has also moved to implement more flexibility within the teacher licensing system to allow “a chemist from Eli Lily to leave that position and find a way into Indiana schools to affect the lives of children.”

Other experts echoed Bennett’s sentiments about the impact of the federal role in education. Coulson discussed the impact of federal involvement in the nation’s classrooms:

We spent over $151,000 per student sending the graduating class of 2009 through public schools. That is nearly three times as much as we spent on the graduating class of 1970, adjusting for inflation. Despite that massive real spending increase, overall achievement has stagnated or declined, depending on the subject.  … We have little to show for the $2 trillion in federal education spending of the past half century. In the face of concerted and unflagging efforts by Congress and the states, public schooling has suffered a massive productivity collapse—it now costs three times as much to provide essentially the same education as we provided in 1970.

Seen in that proper context, we would have to be disappointed with our nation’s lack of educational improvement even if federal spending had not increased at all. The fact that outcomes have remained flat or declined while spending skyrocketed is a disaster unparalleled in any other field.

Mitchell argued that having flexibility with resources “is a key to unlocking the innovative, creative spirit of teachers in classrooms, principals at school sites, and, outside of schools, municipalities as well.”

The most illuminating part of the hearing came when Representative Duncan Hunter (R–CA) asked, “Is it one of those things where you say, ‘Leave it to the local school district …let the states or the school districts choose which one of those things would work better for them’?”

All four panelists concurred.

Education experts and state leaders are clearly thirsting for more flexibility with federal funding streams and more freedom from bureaucratic red tape. The conservative alternative to NCLB would move in that direction by empowering state and local leaders with the flexibility they need to improve student achievement. The approach would allow state leaders to consolidate funding from dozens of federal education programs and direct funding to their states’ educational priorities to meet the needs of students.

One way to achieve this flexibility is through the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) plan, which would allow states to opt out of many of the programs and mandates under No Child Left Behind. As long as a state could demonstrate academic progress from one year to the next, the state would be allowed to use federal education funding in a flexible manner to meet local needs.

In addition to flexibility and freedom from federal mandates, the witnesses were in agreement on the need for more school choice options for families.

One Congressman then asked whether the discrepancy between black and white achievement constituted “a civil rights violation.” Keegan responded:

I believe the violation is that we assign families into failure. … We have a cure, and somehow we can’t make that cure available to students. Instead we assign them to schools we know have been failing for years. I believe that’s the violation.

Two major themes emerged from the hearing: States need flexibility and families need educational choices. As federal policymakers begin examining the merits of a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, they should remember that tinkering with this failed formula will fall short of meeting these needs. Instead, national leaders should pursue a course that devolves dollars and decision-making down to states to ensure that the needs of students are best met.