In the span of 24 hours, the Senate successfully overturned two sets of regulations finalized by President Barack Obama’s Department of Education late last year.
Using the oversight authority granted to it by the Congressional Review Act, the Senate passed resolutions of disapproval for accountability regulations under the Every Student Succeeds Act and regulations for teacher preparation programs. These resolutions now proceed to President Donald Trump.
The use of the Congressional Review Act to roll back these regulations provides immediate relief for states and schools. It also prevents the Department of Education from promulgating substantially similar regulations in the future without congressional approval.
In his speech on the Senate floor about the regulations for teacher preparation programs, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., made two crucial and broadly applicable points:
- Government bureaucrats are not qualified to make highly specific decisions for remote programs.
- The federal government lacks the constitutional authority to interfere in local decision-making about education.
The accountability regulations under the Every Student Succeeds Act and the regulations governing teacher preparation programs are perfect examples of federal micromanagement.
The accountability regulations under the Every Student Succeeds Act dictated the methods that had to be used by states and school districts for evaluating school performance; established minimum funding amounts for school interventions with no regard for school size, the nature of the intervention, or local budget capacity, etc.; and added nonstatutory reporting requirements.
The regulations also attached consequences for schools with high testing opt-out rates.
Critics of the Senate’s vote talk about the possible confusion and uncertainty this will cause for states as they prepare plans for implementing the law. But this criticism simply exposes the flawed state of affairs in our government-run education system.
If states and communities are accustomed to looking toward the federal government and warily watching for directives from Washington before making decisions, the needs of children and communities are pushed to the background.
We have tried the accountability-enforced-from-Washington model for the last 15 years under No Child Left Behind, and it hasn’t worked.
The Senate’s vote against the Obama-era accountability regulations is a step in the right direction, though it still leaves significant power in the hands of the federal government. As Heritage Foundation expert Lindsey Burke noted upon passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, good intentions still produced a mediocre law.
The Every Student Succeeds Act missed the opportunity for real reform by maintaining dozens of ineffective programs and high levels of federal spending, and by failing to incorporate the policies contained in the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) provision.
One of the strengths of our federal system is the possibility of innovation and experimentation in the decentralized context of the states. The A-PLUS provision would allow states to opt out of the complex federal regulatory environment and direct dollars toward any education purposed allowed under state law.
Teacher Preparation Program Regulations
The teacher preparation program regulations were an attempt to have the federal Department of Education evaluate the strength of teacher preparation programs at universities, and to link college students’ access to federal financial aid in the form of TEACH grants to the rating of the programs.
The rating system would have used elementary and secondary students’ test scores and value-added methodologies to measure novice teacher effectiveness, and then judged a college teacher preparation program by the effectiveness of its graduates.
It is widely acknowledged that university-based teacher preparation programs have room for improvement. But not only would this approach have increased reporting requirements beyond those currently contained within the Higher Education Act—it would have required states to report back to the federal government on individual teacher preparation programs at colleges on an annual basis.
Those reports would have had to detail the number of teacher graduates placed in high-needs schools, student learning outcomes reported in terms of achievement gains produced by new teachers, and additional measures of teachers’ content and pedagogical knowledge.
The cost and complexity of developing reporting systems in the K-12 schools that intersected with college teacher preparation programs to provide new information to the federal Department of Education would have been enormous.
Positive Steps Forward
Both of these regulations illustrate the consequences of a federal Department of Education that engages in micromanagement of day-to-day school operations.
Sasse was right to say “good intentions are not enough” when it comes to federal regulation, and the Department of Education has been appropriately checked by Congress through these resolutions of disapproval.
Congress, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and the Trump administration should now work together to significantly reduce federal intervention in education policy and allow states, communities, and schools to make decisions based on local needs and preferences.