If you thought school cafeteria food was bad, take a look at what the federal government has on the menu for school children.

The recent reauthorization of federal nutrition programs has slapped additional regulations onto school cafeteria menus, dictating everything from the number of orange slices a child must put on his or her plate to whether peas and corn are acceptable foods for the lunch line.

In a recent hearing, the House Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee chairman Duncan Hunter (R–CA) noted of this new nutrition legislation:

The resulting law has put the Department of Agriculture in the business of determining the amount of calories, fat, and sodium students should consume in a given school day…telling schools the type of milk, vegetables, and grains that can and cannot be served in cafeterias. The law places greater federal control over wellness policies best left in the hands of state and local leaders.

And, of course, these mandates don’t come without a price. The cost associated with these regulations is estimated to reach nearly $7 billion over the next five years.

Unfortunately, this example of heavy-handed regulation of school cafeterias closely mirrors the manner in which the federal government has approached the nation’s classrooms for decades: implementing top-down policies on schools through myriad programs outlined in legislation such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or through dozens of other federally mandated education programs. As a result, schools must all too often bow to the demands of the federal government instead of giving local governments, schools, and parents the ability to decide what is best for students.

And just like complying with nutrition regulations is costly, so too is answering to the federal government’s demands for education. For example, the Office of Management and Budget reported that NCLB cost states an additional 7 million man-hours in paperwork and $141 million to implement.

Additionally, one Virginia school district calculated that the price associated with NCLB was “equivalent to the cost of hiring 72 additional teachers…[ten] instructional assistants,…[and] four additional assistant principals” who could have had direct “interface…with the community’s children.”

Thus, it is no surprise that after five decades of ever-increasing federal involvement and spending, there has been virtually no increase in student achievement. Nonetheless, since the implementation of the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as No Child Left Behind) in 1965, the government has taken the approach that greater federal involvement is the way to improve schools.

That’s why recent plans proposed by House leaders to eliminate wasteful education programs and give state and local leaders flexibility in how they use federal education dollars is a promising and critical step forward in getting the nation’s education system back into the hands of local government and on track to helping students achieve.

Representative John Kline (R–MN), chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, stated:

Too often, federal education dollars come bundled with myriad requirements, rules and restrictions that can tie the hands of educators and undermine schools’ ability to meet the unique needs of students. That’s why we are developing a proposal that will give states and local school districts the freedom to target taxpayer resources where they’re needed most.

Just as individuals have varying nutritional needs and tastes, children have unique needs when it comes to their education. Federal policy that takes this reality into account is crucial if the United States hopes to promote a system that puts students, not government, first.