The debate over renewing No Child Left Behind, the education reform act that will be 10 years old in January, has fallen along partisan lines even though school improvement is one of the few examples of bipartisan cooperation over the last decade.
Though the law was initiated and signed by a Republican president, presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, who once supported it, now talk about getting the federal government out of education, echoing Tea Party members who deem federal involvement a constitutional travesty. Democratic reformers, meanwhile, insist that the federal government has a role in telling states how to identify, punish and fix low-performing schools — despite little evidence that Washington has been good at any of these tasks. To existing mandates, they would add heavy-handed, unproven teacher-evaluation requirements that could stifle innovative teaching and school design.
We sorely need a smarter, more coherent vision of the federal role in K-12 education. Yet both parties find themselves hemmed in. Republicans are stuck debating whether, rather than how, the federal government ought to be involved in education, while Democrats are squeezed between superintendents, school boards and teachers’ unions that want money with no strings, and activists with little patience for concerns about federal overreach.