Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his successors would be relegated to cheerleaders for the nation's schools, and governors would be put in charge of classrooms under companion bills Senate and House Republicans introduced Thursday.
The top Republicans on Congress' education committees unveiled rewrites to the nation's sweeping law known as No Child Left Behind, which governs elementary and secondary schools that receive tax dollars. While there were differences in the details, the Republicans' overall approach would give governors final responsibility for holding schools accountable and largely limit the Education Department to promoting the importance of learning.
"We would stop Washington, D.C., from deciding whether schools and teachers are failing and restore those decisions back to state and local governments," the top Republican on the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, told The Associated Press in an interview.
The chairman of the House Education Committee said Washington was a poor arbiter of what works — and what does not — in schools.
"We're not leaving the secretary in the position of judging that system," said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.
The state-by-state approach to education standards is already largely in place in the 37 states that received permission from Duncan to ignore the No Child Left Behind requirements in exchange for customized school improvement plans. The other states face the threat of being deemed failing schools if they cannot demonstrate their students perform at grade level in reading and math — a designation that could cost them federal education dollars.
Under Republicans' plans, states would determine if their schools are succeeding, and they could ignore previous federal requirements to show they are getting better every year.
Critics have said such approach lacks accountability and retreats back to the systems in place before President George W. Bush and Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy passed No Child Left Behind with bipartisan support in 2001.
"You're assuming a state doesn't care," Kline said to those critics.
"They should all be striving for excellence," he added during a conference call with reporters.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now more commonly known as No Child Left Behind, governs all schools that receive federal dollars for the poor, minorities, disabled and students whose primary language is not English. In exchange for those federal dollars, schools must meet standards, previously set by Washington but increasingly dictated by state capitols even before the competing No Child Left Behind renewals are debated.
Senate Democrats' plan, introduced Tuesday, would also require states to develop new efforts but requires the education secretary to approve them.
That final step for approval is unacceptable to Republicans including Alexander, himself an education secretary under President George H.W. Bush.
"The parents and teachers and governor should have the ball and the U.S. secretary of education and Department of Education should create an environment in which the parents, the teachers and the governors can succeed, rather than have a national school board that has to approve standards and tests and the quality of teachers in 100,000 different public schools," said Alexander.
A Senate committee is scheduled to take up the Democratic bill next week. A vote by the full Democratic-controlled Senate has not been scheduled and Democratic aides suggested it could be autumn before one occurs.
House Republicans were set to start work on their legislation on June 19. Aides said they were planning on a full vote by the House before lawmakers leave for August recess.