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LEARN Act from U.S. Rep. Garrett Would "Return" K-12 Policy to States

The big federal news this week has been Sec. Arne Duncan's announcement that his department is willing to allow states that have received No Child Left Behind waivers to postpone the use of student growth on state tests in personnel decisions for an additional year, up until the 2016-17 school year. But one member of Congress, Rep. Scott Garrett of New Jersey, wants to take "flexibility" for states in an even bolder direction: He wants states to be able to opt out of No Child Left Behind accountability entirely, no strings attached.

My Politics K-12 colleague Alyson Klein mentioned Garrett's proposal at the end of a June 17 blog post about conservative arguments possibly hindering reauthorization of NCLB. The Local Education Authority Returns Now (LEARN) Act, which Garrett announced he reintroduced June 17, "will give states the option to opt out of No Child Left Behind. In return, the federal government would provide taxpayers of the opt-out state a tax credit, thereby keeping money in the pockets of taxpayers instead of sending it to Washington, D.C." H.R. 2394, which has 18 original co-sponsors, would work through three steps, according to a press release describing the bill.

• A state decides on its own that financial aid from the U.S. department are not worth the conditions attached to it, and "elects to opt out."

• The department calculates how much aid the "opt out" states can receive under ESEA.

• Taxpayers receive tax credits proportionate to their state tax burden.

"If we are truly interested in transforming our public education system, we need to remove Washington bureaucrats from the equation and return control and accountability to local communities where they can truly effect change in the areas they know it is needed most," Garrett said in the release.

So now we get to the "what it means" part of the bill, since its ultimate political prospects seem to be questionable at best. A spokeswoman for Garrett, Maggie Seidel, wrote in an email that in contrast to the congressman's approach, the waivers violate the Constitution by enacting legislation outside the legislative branch. In addition, she said the LEARN Act is "absolutely" an expression of opposition to the Common Core State Standards, which have triggered criticism about Washington's role in promoting content standards from other Republican legislators in Congress.

"This bill is intended to empower parents and teachers, who have long been shut out of the education policy discussion in favor of federal bureaucrats," Seidel wrote.

Obviously, Garrett isn't just concerned with getting a grabby Uncle Sam off states' backs—he wants money returned to voters and regulations on states to disappear. This is a stark rejection of Washington's dangling of fiscal incentives for preferred policies.

My Politics K-12 colleagues have meticulously documented how Republican members of Congress have been dogging the department about the waiver process, even though it nominally gives states flexibility from portions of federal law. They've even questioned whether Duncan and the department have the legal power to grant waivers in the first place. And as Alyson documented, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican, plans to submit his own opt-out "A-Plus Act" in which states could submit their own K-12 accountability plans to the department.

Clearly, critical sentiments about the handling of NCLB by the Obama administration are on the rise, at least as measured by political activity, and these in turn have prompted wider concerns about Washington's role in overseeing public schools.

There are critics of the federal government's evolving role in public schools from both the left and the right, of course, so the spectrum of support for a retrenchment of Washington's K-12 power is in theory wide, if not necessarily correspondingly deep. At the same time, some people might consider what their own states would do if given a freer K-12 policy hand, and blanch.

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