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GOP Congress balks at reauthorizing education bill while experts debate federal role

With Republicans still struggling to revise the embattled No Child Left Behind law, advocates on both sides are again sparring over the federal role in K-12 education. One month ago, it appeared the House was poised to revise NCLB, which was first passed in 2002 and now is long overdue for overhaul.

But then the gear stuck, as conservatives, moderates and liberals could not reach a consensus on whether to allow states to opt out of federal demands created by the law.

"If every child is going to receive a quality education, then we need to place less faith in the Secretary of Education and more faith in parents, teachers, and state and local leaders," House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.), said, as reported in The Hill.

But Democrats argued that greater state and local discretion would mean falling standards and fewer resources in disadvantaged communities. "As a result, Congress has a longstanding policy to target our limited federal funding to schools and students who get left behind in an unequal system," said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), as reported in The Hill.

This weekend, presumptive GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush took to the Washington Post to argue for greater state flexibility.

"The federal government’s role in elementary and secondary education should be limited," Bush wrote in his op-ed. "It should work to create transparency so that parents can see how their local schools measure up; it should support policies that have a proven record; and it should make sure states can’t ignore students who need extra help. That’s it."

Education is a dicey area for Bush. As governor of Florida, he was at the forefront of the accountabilty and testing movement that became the blueprint for federal policy over the past decade, as Education Week noted in 2010.

In the opposite corner this weekend was Peter Cunningham, who argues at Real Clear Education that states cannot be trusted to follow through with rigor and reforms. Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post and a former assistant Secretary of Education in the Obama administration.

The highest performing countries America competes with on education all have highly centralized education systems, Cunningham argues. He calls for a much, much larger federal investment in K-12 education, enough to overwhelm the class differences in education funding that create enormous education resource gaps between rich and poor.

"Leaving accountability solely to the states is a complete surrender to the status quo," Cunningham argues. "State and local elected officials won’t adequately fund a system of accountability, administrators won’t faithfully implement it, and teacher unions will relentlessly resist it. Pretending otherwise ignores both history and human nature."