Over the last decade, the U.S. Department of Education has become so congested with federal mandates that it has become, in effect, a national school board.

If you remember the childhood game “Mother, May I?,” then you’ll have a pretty good sense of how the process works – states must come to Washington to get approval for their plans, determining the education of 50 million students in 100,000 public schools. 

This congestion of mandates is caused by three things: No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the administration’s use of waivers.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) imposed, federally, standards for what children had to know in reading and math and definitions for whether schools or teachers were succeeding or failing. Race to the Top is a competitive grant program, but the secretary of education has used it to essentially mandate that the 46 applicant states, along with the District of Columbia, adopt Common Core standards and tests for their students in reading and math. It also mandated four “turnaround models” for failing schools and provided prescriptive teacher and principal evaluation plans.  

Congress’s failure to fix the problems with No Child Left Behind and restrain Race to the Top has allowed this administration to turn its waiver authority — which is supposed to provide states with relief from unworkable requirements – into a conditional process in which the secretary tells states what they have to do to obtain that relief. So, to obtain a waiver, states have had to adopt Common Core standards and measures for students’ performance in reading or math, federal definitions of how a state should measure a school’s performance, and prescriptive teacher and principal evaluation systems. NCLB requirements have become so unworkable that states are essentially forced into the application-waiver process: 47 states plus the District of Columbia have applied. 

Senate Democrats have offered a 1,150-page plan that would not only maintain these mandates that force states to get waivers, but expand them, by creating more than 25 new programs and 150 new reporting requirements for states and local school districts. 

Republicans propose to move in a different direction. We offer a 220-page plan to help children in public schools learn what they need to know by restoring responsibility to states and communities and giving teachers and parents freedom, flexibility, and choice.

We call it “Every Child Ready for College or Career.”

Our plan emphasizes state and local decision-making. It takes Washington out of the business of deciding whether local schools are succeeding or failing, freeing all schools from meeting NCLB’s “Adequate Yearly Progress” mandate. It rejects the federal mandates that effectively created a national school board, prohibiting the secretary of education from prescribing standards or accountability systems for states. It maintains the requirement that states have strong standards and high-quality tests, but doesn’t write them for the states.

Our proposal makes it easier for states to offer low-income parents more choice in finding the right public school for their children. It gives teachers and principals more freedom by encouraging the expansion and replication of successful charter schools. It encourages states to create teacher- and principal-evaluation programs, free of federal mandates. It offers states more flexibility in spending federal education dollars, while cutting waste by consolidating 62 federal programs into two block grants.

This is not a proposal just for Republicans. We believe this proposal represents the views of and will attract support from the governors leading the charge for education reform, teachers who value the freedom to teach, parents who want more choices for their children, and state legislators who are working for better schools. 

Our proposal builds on 30 years of work by governors, legislators, school boards, teachers, and parents. Especially over the last decade, states have worked to raise their standards.

The Democrats’ ”Mother, May I?” proposal establishes, in effect, a national school board. Such a proposa suggests they don’t trust parents, classroom teachers, and states to care about and help educate their children; they want someone in Washington do it for them.

We completely reject that. Our proposal places responsibility for helping our children learn squarely where it ought to be — on states and communities, by giving teachers and parents more freedom, flexibility and choices.

— Lamar Alexander is a U.S. senator from Tennessee and ranking member on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.