‘Tis the season for Republican soul-searching. On the eve of Democrats’ control of Congress, Republican lawmakers claim to be re-embracing the limited-government ideals that brought them to power in 1994. If the GOP is serious about again becoming the majority party, it must consider carefully where it strayed from conservative philosophy.

One area meriting close scrutiny is K-12 education policy. In the heyday of modern conservatism, Republicans were committed to abolishing the Department of Education and restoring state and local control. Since education isn’t mentioned in the Constitution, they correctly argued, the federal government has no legitimate role in education policy. And, besides, decades of federal education programs had proved Washington was inept at improving student learning.

Yet, by 2001, congressional Republicans abandoned this principle for the chance at a photo-op with Ted Kennedy. They backed the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind act (NCLB)– the largest expansion of the federal role in education since 1965. NCLB imposed new federal dictates on states and localities, including annual student-testing and teacher-certification policies. States were also required to impose various penalties and reforms on schools that failed to meet benchmarks. In return for these mandates, Congress increased spending on federal-education programs by more than 25 percent. The party of Reagan and Gingrich thus embraced Bush/Hastert big-governmentism with alarming gusto.

Five years later, NCLB has reaffirmed the folly of federal meddling in local schools. Most notably, NCLB hasn’t significantly improved academic achievement across the nation. By the Bush administration’s own figures, millions of children remain in schools that fail to meet state benchmarks. At best, the law helps only a small minority escape these inadequate schools.

NCLB has had one positive impact: More Americans– including parents, teachers, and school administrators– understand Republicans had it right in 1994, before they fell in love with Washington. A 2006 Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans believed that NCLB has either harmed or had no effect on schools.

Congress is scheduled to reauthorize NCLB next year. That presents conservatives on Capitol Hill with an opportunity to reverse one of the biggest Republican mistakes of the past decade. There is little current political support for ending Washington’s role in education, but conservatives could make headway with a positive agenda for restoring state/local/parental control and, at the very least, trimming the federal bureaucracy.

In a recent report, Heritage Foundation analysts outlined one promising approach: allowing states to enter into a contractual or “charter” agreement with the federal government. Under the agreement, the states would control and direct their share of federal-education funding on state initiatives. They no longer would have to spend all federal-education aid on federally mandated programs and jump through the current maze of bureaucratic hoops. In exchange for this freedom, states would be accountable for results. They would have to present a plan for measuring student performance, monitor student progress, and make the results available to parents.

The Heritage plan would transfer much of the control of America’s schools from Congress and federal bureaucrats back to localities. It would empower governors, state legislators, and state school boards to implement school reforms they believe have the most promise to help local students. Disgruntled parents and teachers wouldn’t have to travel farther than their state capitol building to voice their opinions about what’s best for their children’s schools.

This federalist system would encourage states to use their resources efficiently while promoting innovation and competition. States naturally would pursue different reform programs. Some might embrace school choice while others would focus on traditional fixes like reducing class sizes or more teacher training. Local officials would see the results in their neighboring states and could adopt the best practices from across the country. Conservatives should welcome that dynamic as a vast improvement over the status quo. They already have the most compelling vision for education– parental choice and a marketplace in learning– and reducing Washington’s role is a prerequisite to achieving this goal.

The election last month proved that, when Republicans act like Democrats, the public decides to elect the real thing. By contrast, the conservative revolution that brought Republicans to power inspired voters by offering them a real choice. A good place to start rebuilding that revolution is by leaving behind No Child Left Behind.