By Rep Martha Roby
Like many states, Alabama is working through the important task of improving its public education system. Though our state has made impressive strides in raising instructional quality over the last several years, much work remains. As that work moves forward, important questions arise: What kind of curriculum should be taught? What is the best way to measure improvement? What kind of standards should be put in place, and how?
Count me among those who believe Alabama should indeed set statewide standards -- high standards that challenge students, build critical thinking skills and enhance opportunities to succeed. As a mother of a child that attends public school, I'm glad our state has made an effort to raise its standards in recent years when we lagged behind for so long.
It is healthy to routinely evaluate and refine such policies. State leaders should take a fresh look at what works and what doesn't, reinvesting in the time-tested principles that have served us well, while remaining open to modern reforms that can make a difference. No single group of people has a monopoly on good ideas. If other states are doing things that work, we should take a close look at those practices.
However welcome the collaboration between states may be, the intrusion of the federal government -- directly or indirectly -- into the process is inappropriate. It invariably comes with a political agenda from Washington. And, unfortunately, the Obama administration has improperly inserted itself into state education policy making.
How? Not through legislation or by statute. Rather, they cleverly use a labyrinth of executive regulations, coveted waivers from those very regulations, and lucrative grant programs -- all of which have strings attached.
Often, the litmus test to determine a state's eligibility for these incentives is whether a particular set of educational standards, favored by the party in power, has been adopted. In a time of tight budgets, many states effectively have no choice: They are forced to decide between adopting the education scheme favored by the big political machine in Washington or risk being placed at a disadvantage relative to the states that do. Of course, the tax money Washington bureaucrats are using to steer states' decisions is paid by you and me and taxpayers throughout Alabama who may not agree with the education policy whims of Washington.
The executive branch has exceeded its appropriate reach where state education policy is concerned, and it's time to rein it in.
This week, I am introducing a bill in Congress to restore state authority over education and to prevent undue influence by the federal government over local educators and state leaders. Washington must respect the authority of our state and local leaders to define curriculum and set assessment policy.
I greatly appreciate the work those engaged in this process: Gov. Robert Bentley, legislative leaders, state Superintendent Tommy Bice, school board members, the business community, education advocates, and -- most importantly -- Alabama's parents and teachers. Discussion and debate among these groups about the best education policies for our students is ongoing and that is exactly what Alabama needs. What we don't need is the unwelcome intrusion of the federal government into the process.
My bill, the Defending State Authority Over Education Act, would prevent any officer of the federal government from using "grants, contracts or other cooperative agreements" to "mandate, direct or control" a state's educational standards or curriculum. The bill would specifically prohibit the U.S. secretary of education from influencing, incentivizing or coercing a state to participate in a particular multistate educational partnership. Further, it would prohibit making the approval of waivers or grants contingent on whether a state has adopted any specific "academic standard," "assessment" or "evaluation system."
Local and state leaders -- those with direct interaction with parents and teachers in their communities -- are best positioned to determine policies that affect Alabama's students. Washington bureaucrats are not.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote, "An honest heart being the first blessing, a knowing head is the second." I'm committed to making sure our children have both by empowering Alabama and all states to set their education policies free from federal intrusion. Let's get Washington out of the business of trying to use federal money to influence state policy.
Martha Roby, R-Montgomery, represents Alabama's Second Congressional District. She is a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.