Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged a revamp of the “tired” and “prescriptive” law currently known as No Child Left Behind today, calling for a law that replaces NCLB with one that includes “more money” than is currently authorized.

Duncan urged Congress to increase spending, ensure educational “equity” and to include preschool as a component of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The push to include preschool as part of Act was particularly notable. This is a dramatic departure from the earlier purpose of the ESEA—which has historically focused on K-12 education for disadvantaged students—and represents significant increased federal intervention in early childhood education.

This ESEA mission creep reflects the Obama administration’s goal of creating a “cradle-to-career” taxpayer-funded “free” education system, beginning with federally funded preschool and now extending through “free” community college, which the administration announced Friday.

Duncan urged a re-write of ESEA that “recognizes that no family should be denied preschool for their children.” But it’s not clear that there are many families who want to send a child to preschool and cannot. The administration also should consider that combined estimates from the National Institute for Early Education Research  and the U.S. Department of Education suggest that between two-thirds (66 percent) and three-quarters (74 percent) of 4-year-old children are already enrolled in some form of preschool program.

The Obama administration’s goal is creating a “cradle-to-career” taxpayer-funded “free” education system, from federally-funded preschool to “free” community college

Many of those children (28 percent), particularly children from low-income families, are enrolled in state- and federally funded preschool programs. For its part, the federal government currently operates 45 early learning and child care programs, of which 12 have as an explicit purpose to provide early childhood education and care.

Instead of creating a new preschool entitlement through a contortion of the ESEA, Washington should divest itself from the provision of preschool and childcare. The federal government’s failed track record on Head Start has demonstrated that there is little wisdom in managing large-scale preschool and childcare programs from Washington.

In addition to the call for an expansion of the ESEA downward into the realm of preschool, Duncan also urged an increase in spending for the programs that fall under the ESEA, including a $1 billion boost for the Title I program, which provides federal funding to low-income school districts. In all, the administration wants a $2.7 billion increase in spending on programs that are authorized by the law.

Inflation-adjusted federal per-pupil spending on education has nearly tripled since the 1970s, and there is little evidence that continually increasing spending on programs—both niche competitive grants and large formula programs like Title I—have or will lead to increases in student performance.

In the half-century that has followed the enactment of the original ESEA, graduation rates for disadvantaged students have remained flat, American students rank in the middle of the pack of their international peers, reading and math achievement has been virtually stagnant and achievement gaps persist.

Federal per-pupil spending on education has nearly tripled since the 1970s, and there is little evidence that continually increasing spending on programs will lead to increases in student performance

Although Duncan’s speech is illustrative of the White House’s priorities for the law, over the next few weeks Congress, specifically the House and Senate education committees, likely will offer their own draft re-writes. At a minimum, any potential reauthorization of NCLB should:

  1. Allow states to opt out. Including the Academic Partnerships Lead Us To Success (A-PLUS) approach in a reauthorized ESEA would enable states to consolidate their federal education funds authorized under NCLB and allow them to be used for any lawful education purpose they deem beneficial under state law. This allows states to opt out of the prescriptive programmatic requirements of NCLB and use funding in a way that will best meet their students’ needs.
  2. Reduce program count. The original ESEA included five titles, 32 pages and roughly $1 billion in federal funding. By the time ESEA was reauthorized for the seventh time in 2001 as No Child Left Behind, new mandates had been imposed on states and local school districts, and program count continued to grow as part of a trend by national policymakers to have a “program for every problem.” To pay for the dozens of competitive and formula grant programs that comprise the law, funding for NCLB exceeded $25 billion in fiscal year 2014. The growth in program count and spending over the decades has failed to improve educational outcomes for students, and as such, should be curtailed.
  3. Eliminate burdensome mandates. Accountability and transparency “should be vehicles to reinvigorate the relationship of the American people with their schools rather than merely mechanisms employed by government officials to oversee and hold government schools accountable.” Congress should eliminate the many federal mandates within NCLB masquerading as accountability, including Adequate Yearly Progress requirements, Highly Qualifed Teacher mandates and costly maintenance of effort rules.
  4. Create a state option of Title I funding portability. The $14.5 billion Title I program comprises the bulk of NCLB spending. Acting as a vehicle to provide additional federal funding to low-income school districts, Title I was one of the 1965 ESEA’s original and primary purposes. Funding through Title I, however, is distributed through a convoluted funding formula, “with provisions that render the final results substantially incongruent with the original legislative intention.” In order to make Title I work for the disadvantaged children it originally was intended to help, Congress should permit states to make Title I funding portable, allowing funding to follow a child to the school of his parents’ choice—public, private, charter or virtual.

In the 50 years since the passage of the ESEA, currently reauthorized as No Child Left Behind, its most significant contribution has been a dramatic escalation of spending and a bureaucratic compliance burden that has made states more responsive to Washington than to local parents, teachers and taxpayers.

Fifty years later, it’s time for a serious re-examination of the nation’s largest K-12 education law, not a blind expansion of the failed status quo.