WASHINGTON - As the U.S. government discusses reauthorizing a sweeping education law and prepares to distribute billions of stimulus dollars for school reform, state legislatures are sending it a strong message: hands off.
Education policy has always been the territory of state and local governments, but in the last decade the U.S. government has interjected itself into curriculum and school reforms, the National Conference of State Legislatures said on Monday.
The group, which represents state legislatures, suggested using a federal model to fund education akin to that used to build the interstate highway system, whereby money is given to states, which then pass it on to local governments.
It would also like federal funds concentrated in areas where students are the most disadvantaged and not handed out equally to every congressional district.
The education law passed under former President George W. Bush and known as No Child Left Behind created a system of standards by which schools and school districts would be judged and federal funding awarded.
The law has been criticized for having lengthy and impossible standards and for inadvertently punishing poor performing schools by withholding money.
Last week Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the administration will change the standards when the law is renewed and increase requirements for how schools report on achieving those standards. It will also dedicate "unprecedented resources" to rewarding schools that attain those standards while focusing on improving the "bottom 1 percent" of schools, he said.
But for the legislatures' group, "neither federal top-down mandates nor categorical and competitive grant resources have significantly affected student achievement."
The group contends that local school districts and states are closer to students' lives and understand their needs better, while the U.S. government is too removed.
"If we continue on our current policy path, federal resources, which now account for slightly more than 7 percent of the enterprise, will drag the entire system into the rabbit-hole world where compliance with federal dictums masquerades as reforms," the group said.
The legislatures would like to see a new form of debt created in the two-year economic stimulus plan for building and renovating schools continued past the plan's expiration date. Tax credit bonds, which offer tax credits in lieu of interest payments, would save schools billions of dollars in debt service costs.
But the group is wary of other parts of the stimulus.
In April, the U.S. government will award up to $4 billion in "Race to the Top" grants to fund innovations in semi-autonomous public schools known as "charters" and pursue other reforms. President Barack Obama will include another $1.35 billion for the program in the budget he proposes next week.
At the same time the $787 billion stimulus plan dedicated billions to a state fiscal stabilization fund that allowed states to keep educators employed.
"The spike in federal funding has shored up needed fiscal support for public education but is unlikely to outlast the state fiscal crisis," the report said. "The task force believes that lasting education reforms are not likely to be initiated or to survive when states are scrambling just to focus available funding on proven reforms already in place."
The group also said that the U.S. government only provides thin funding in exchange for meeting its requirements, and estimated it would cost the federal government $500 billion to take control of all of the nation's public schools.
Editing by Kenneth Barry