The Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act (APLUS) proposal would allow states to completely opt out of the programs under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), but would it also empower teachers unions?

This argument is being made against the APLUS approach by proponents of the massive rewrite of NCLB moving through Congress. For example, Max Eden at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) writes in a blog at U.S. News and World Report that the “problem is that the theory behind subsidiarity and the logic behind local control hit a well-nigh immovable brick wall in education policy: teachers unions.”

But has it?

Local Control and School Choice

Teachers unions certainly oppose parental choice in education, the most local type of control. Local control and school choice pose an existential threat to these special interest groups’ stranglehold on public education. Yet over the past few years, their grip has begun to weaken. In some states, it has weakened substantially.

In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker (R) successfully fought to restore teachers’ ability to choose whether or not to join a union. He ended automatic paycheck deductions for union dues, and he limited collective bargaining.

Even in Chicago, Rahm Emanuel has pushed back against the Chicago Teachers Union’s unreasonable demands and begun a dialog on reform, as AEI’s Rick Hess and Mike McShane have written.

In California, parents are using parent trigger laws more and more to turn around union-run schools that are failing their children.

Louisiana is perhaps the best example of a state taking charge of a struggling education environment. New Orleans has the most market-based school district in the country, in which every child can choose where to attend school, and Louisiana students now have statewide school choice. The unions sued. The U.S. Department of Justice threatened to nix the voucher option. But Louisiana prevailed in the end.

It’s also worth reiterating that the federal government funds just 10 percent of all K–12   education spending. Restoring state control over that 10 percent would not bolster union power. States that are concerned with unions blocking much-needed reforms must first deal with these problems at the state and local levels where unions wield disproportionate control over 90 percent of education funding.


Conservatives in Congress have long championed APLUS as a means of restoring state and local control over the 10 percent of education funding financed by the federal government. APLUS would enable states to put the funding that their taxpayers send to Washington toward state and local education priorities instead of funding ineffective and duplicative federal programs.

APLUS is about restoring state and local control of education—a tenant of conservative education reform efforts. It is a necessary condition for moving dollars out of the hands of federal bureaucrats and into the hands of those closer to the students whom their decisions affect.

Federal “Transparency”

In an additional critique, Eden writes: “It’s because of federally-required transparency that charter schools and voucher schools can demonstrate they work” (emphasis added).

Yet any private school principal or charter school head is unlikely to say that federal “transparency” mandates are what enables them to demonstrate effectiveness. Rather, they demonstrate effectiveness every day by providing options and learning environments that parents believe match well with their children’s unique learning needs. Parents make these decisions by visiting their children’s classrooms, talking to their teachers, talking to their children, and getting information from formative assessments.

That isn’t to say parents don’t want to know how their child is faring on a summative assessment, but that they’re far more concerned about how their child performed on his history quiz than on the federally mandated annual assessment—on which Johnny often has little incentive to perform well. Moreover, as recently noted in the debate over annual testing mandates, education researcher Helen Ladd noted in 2010:

First, the null findings for reading indicate to me that to the extent that higher reading scores are an important goal for the country, NCLB is clearly not the right approach. That raises the obvious follow-up question: what is?…

[T]he suggestive evidence that I have included here on Massachusetts [indicates] that states may be in a better position to promote student achievement than the federal government.

Declining Union Membership

Eden also argues that “federally-required transparency” has contributed to the decline in union membership—the National Education Association has lost 230,000 members since 2011—because it has enabled the public to understand how poorly public schools are performing.

Yet many people would argue that unions are on the ropes thanks to reform-minded state leaders such as Walker and because more and more families are becoming accustomed to school choice, not because of federal mandates that have incentivized states to be less transparent about student outcomes, especially when linked with federal sanctions.

Absent federal “transparency mandates,” Eden argues, “It’s a lot harder for a charter school or a voucher school to make a persuasive case out of ‘we teach students better than union-run district schools. We can’t actually prove that, but trust us, we do.’”

Yet as Patrick Wolf recently noted in an AEI report based on his new book The School Choice Journey,

Unlike policymakers, parents do not view test scores as the key metric of success in education (or even as one of the main indicators of success). They use less-formal measures of student growth and development to assess progress and satisfaction.

In fact, growing evidence indicates that state pressure to include private schools in state tests—possibly spurred in part by the compliance-to-Washington mindset—has led schools to sit out participating in school choice options, limiting parents’ available choices.

So instead of a 600-page rewrite of NCLB that retains too many mandates and fails to empower states, let’s try something different.

State-Led Innovation

Would some states do everything they could to infuse market-based, student-centered reforms under APLUS? Absolutely. Florida is a great example, and we’re seeing state after state enact school choice options—so much so that it’s hard to keep track. The growing wave of innovation at the state level seems to fly in the face of the thesis that APLUS would embolden the teachers unions and stunt reform.

Although some states may not use their 10 percent of federal education funding in the way that many reform advocates would hope, the pressure on states thanks to the competitive federalism inherent in the American system of government has made it increasingly difficult for state leaders to sit idly by while innovations—such as education savings accounts—take hold in more and more states.

If anything, giving state and local leaders—who are closer to the parents and taxpayers demanding reform—more control over their share of federal education funding will increase their willingness to push back against the standard bearers of the failed status quo.

We’ve tried central control. It’s time to restore state and local control of education.