One-size-fits-all usually ends up meaning “one-size-fits-few.” And there is no exception when it comes to education.

That was the message sent during a hearing held last week by the House Education and Workforce Committee: The federal government needs to step back and give states and schools more flexibility.

During last Thursday’s hearing, “Education Reforms: Promoting Flexibility and Innovation,” witnesses testified of the importance of allowing schools to set their own course instead of being forced to comply with rigid demands set forth by Washington.

As Janet Barresi, Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction, testified:

The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidelines that on the surface seem to offer states more flexibility to meet local needs. But there seems to be a disconnect between good intentions at the top level and what actually occurs in practice.

Gary Amoroso, superintendent of Lakeville Public Schools in Minnesota, pleaded with the committee to seek ways to provide school districts with more flexibility of federal funding:

Reauthorization [of No Child Left Behind] should … allow districts to focus on student-centered needs and to make allocation decisions free of mandatory set-asides. This, in effect, offers local control to educators to make decisions, which truly allow all students to succeed.

Terry Grier, superintendent of Houston Public Schools, described even more starkly how federal intervention has hampered his community’s work to improve education at the local level:

Our work … is impeded by various state and federal barriers that compromise our efforts and impact our most vulnerable children. …

Designing and implementing instructional activities under federal programs is complicated by a myriad of requirements and statutory set-asides, as well as reservations of funds for particular activities. [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] Title I provides the most striking example with the No Child Left Behind [NCLB] statutory set-asides totaling some 56% of the funds depending on how you add them up. … With such a large proportion of statutorily-directed spending since 2001, instructional decision-making at the district and school level for Title I has been exceptionally challenging. …

There are certainly many of the 588 requirements in just Title I Part A, identified by the Department of Education’s Inspector General in a March 2006 report, [that] could be deleted without damaging the purposes and benefits of the program.

As discussion over NCLB reauthorization heats up, it is critical that instead of mandating more costly and time-consuming federal approaches that divert schools’ attention from those they are trying to serve—the students—policymakers give states greater flexibility in how they spend federal education dollars.

As an alternative to the prescriptive mandates of NCLB, conservative approaches such as A-PLUS, which would allow states to opt out of many of the programs under NCLB, would give states the ability to use education funds in the manner they—not government bureaucrats—see fit. Senators Jim DeMint (R–SC) and John Cornyn (R–TX) have indicated that they will reintroduce the legislation, which they also sponsored in the last Congress, this week.

As Chairman John Kline (R–MN), noted during last week’s committee hearing:

If we are going to move forward in education, Washington has to move in a new direction. States and schools should be able to set their own innovative priorities and receive maximum flexibility to advance those priorities.