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Republican education policy
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., left, sitting next to the committee’s ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., asks a question during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, looking at ways to fix the No Child Left Behind law. Alexander said he is open to discussion on whether the federal government should dictate standardized testing or leave it up to states. Credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

With this week’s new bill to rewrite No Child Left Behind released by Lamar Alexander’s (R-TN) education committee, GOP lawmakers are surprisingly taking one more step to cut back on the use of competition, incentives, and innovation in federal grants for education.

Ironically, this GOP push to reduce competition and incentives has led to an inadvertent alignment with teachers unions, traditional Republican foes. But more troubling, curbing competition, incentives, and innovation will prop up the current status quo of federal education spending: Taxpayer dollars, that is, would continue to be doled out to an even greater extent on an automatic formula basis.

Slashing competitive funding — and weakening or eliminating incentives to do things differently in K-12 education — will stifle innovation and impede reform. It’s hard to see how cutting federal support for state and local innovation in education is good for children. And somewhat unexpectedly, the GOP legislation in both the House and Senate would largely put to an end attempts by the federal government to encourage states to pursue a slew of education reforms that Republicans and conservative business leaders have themselves long championed.

Related: Congress should rewrite No Child Left Behind to help schools improve, not punish them

The GOP bills to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law would zero out funding for all of the Obama administration’s large, competitively funded programs. At the top of the list is Race to the Top, the administration’s signature initiative. It created a novel competition to encourage comprehensive statewide reform in K-12 education. Also zeroed out: the i3 program (Investing in Innovation), which supported nonprofits to scale up promising, evidence-based initiatives to improve education.

“Before conservatives give three cheers for killing off the Obama administration’s initiatives, they should think again about undermining the use of competition and incentives in federal education dollars”

State and local governments have always had the lead role in K-12 education. But contrary to some rhetoric on the political right, the federal government has provided state and local governments with incentives to expand and improve education since the founding of the Republic. Even before the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the Continental Congress enacted the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, empowering the federal government to provide land grants to states and territories to build schools. The law enacted by the founders was explicit: “Knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged,” it stated.

Normally, Republicans are great believers in incentives — in “encouraging” education. As Jeb Bush told the National Review in 2011, the government should “align incentives [in education] toward things you want more of and have different consequences for things you want less of — it reeks of common sense, but it’s a radical idea for government.”So why are Republicans lawmakers now taking the unlikely step of reducing incentives and competition?

Two factors are likely at work. First, the competitive programs being zeroed out were initiated by the Obama administration, which many Republican lawmakers reflexively distrust. By contrast, Alexander’s new bill would expand competitive grants for a federal charter school program favored by the Bush administration, and the House GOP legislation would retain the $288 million Teacher Incentive Fund, which the Bush administration established in 2006.. (TIF’s competitive awards support the use of teacher and principal performance-based compensation in high-need schools that takes account of gains in student achievement).

The second factor in the GOP’s retreat from competition is that the 2009-10 Race to the Top program provided an incentive for states to adopt the Common Core State Standards to increase their chances of winning an RTT grant. Even though the federal government had no role in drafting the Common Core State Standards, and even though state adoption was voluntary, Tea Party opposition both to the Common Core and to any federal role in education has mushroomed.

Last month, on a straight party line vote, Republicans in the Senate managed to pass a budget amendment to prohibit the federal government from “incentivizing” states to adopt any specific academic standards. Meanwhile, it was Senate Democrats who unanimously opposed stripping the federal government of the option to encourage states to adopt high, college- and career-ready standards.

Before conservatives give three cheers for killing off the Obama administration’s initiatives, they should think again about undermining the use of competition and incentives in federal education dollars.

As it turns out, the Obama administration’s competitive programs also provided incentives for state and local governments to pursue education reforms long sought by conservatives. Race to the Top provided incentives for states both to lift caps on the number of charter schools, and, for the first time, to systematically use student performance and progress as an element in teacher evaluation and compensation–a goal that Lamar Alexander, the GOP chair of the Senate education committee has dubbed “the Holy Grail” of education reform. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, was so unhappy with the conservative tilt of Race to the Top that she labeled the Obama administration “Bush III” in 2009.

The use of incentives in federal taxpayer dollars for education is not just an ideological debate about the proper reaches of federalism — it has important implications for students and the strength of the education system. While some conservatives have deplored the fact that Race to the Top encouraged states to adopt the Common Core State Standards, conservative business associations, like the U.S Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable, have applauded the Race to the Top program because it encouraged states to set higher, shared expectations for what students should know and be able to do to succeed in college and the workplace.

Related: The biggest losers in the No Child Left Behind Rewrite

Not surprisingly, employers are keenly aware of global competition in a knowledge-based job market. And most employers think that standards for student performance and preparation shouldn’t be dumbed-down by states (as many states have done) or disappear at the state line. As far as employers are concerned, the laws of algebra are the same in South Carolina as in California. For employers, and for students, it’s a good thing that Race to the Top incentivized the adoption of higher, college and career-ready standards.

Similarly, the federal role in supporting state and local innovation also has a real-world impact on students, especially at a time when most state and local governments lack funding to support innovation and research studies to identify “what works” to improve education. Conservatives have long favored federal funding of independent evaluations of educational interventions, and first established the Office of Innovation and Improvement and the What Works Clearinghouse in the Bush administration in 2002.

Scaling back competitive grants for evidence-based innovation — like those provided in the i3 competition — will almost certainly sap efforts to identify and scale-up initiatives that boost student achievement. Since the inception of the Obama administration, the i3 program has awarded more than $1.3 billion to 143 projects affecting hundreds of thousands of students. i3 projects support everything from data-driven coaching for teachers for reading literacy to innovative blended learning projects to principal leadership training.

The hunger for innovation in education at the local level is palpable today — nearly 1,700 applicants applied for the 49 grants awarded in the first-round of the i3 competition in 2010, by far the largest number of applicants in a single competition in the department’s history.

This year, more than 100 organizations, including Teach for America, the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, and KIPP, the high-performing charter school chain, have signed on to a letter from the Knowledge Alliance, urging the heads of the House and Senate education committees to restore funding for the i3 program.

Related: Ed tech must do more to advance equity, education secretary says

Republicans used to recognize that the federal government has a role in expanding educational opportunity and supporting innovation. In fact, the party has celebrated the role that Republican presidents had played in expanding educational access.

The 1992 Republican platform, for example, stated that “From early times, the national government has played a role in encouraging innovation and access. In the 18th century, the Northwest Ordinance assured that schools bells would ring amid frontier forests. In the 19th century, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act establishing 50 land-grant colleges. In the 20th century, President Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act [strengthening STEM education] and providing millions with a chance at higher education.”

Today, Republicans are far less willing to acknowledge the need for a federal role in education. Yet gutting competition for federal taxpayer dollars and undermining incentives to innovate will set a bad legislative precedent that can’t be easily undone by a future Congress.

In 2016, a Republican may occupy the White House. Here is to hoping that the next Secretary of Education, whatever their political affiliation, won’t have to run Washington like an ATM, doling out federal dollars to state and local governments on a formula basis. If Republicans oppose competition and incentives today, the GOP agenda for promoting opportunity and growth is in trouble tomorrow.

David Whitman is a Contributing Editor at Education Post and was a reporter for nearly two decades for U.S. News & World Report. From June 2009 to November 2014 he was chief speechwriter for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

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