Conservatives enamored with Senator Fred Thompson are desperate for evidence that he really is Ronald Reagan’s heir. After six years of disappointments, conservatives want to hear more than just a recitation of support for low taxes, less regulations, and federalism. We’ve heard that line before. Thompson needs to show that he knows the difference between limited government conservatism and Bush’s brand of big-government Republicanism, which seeks to use the government beast for conservative aims instead of tame it.

The upcoming debate on Capitol Hill over the future of the No Child Left Behind law presents Sen. Thompson — and other GOP candidates — with such an opportunity. President Bush continues to tout No Child Left Behind as one of his signature domestic initiatives. But conservatives are increasingly skeptical. As the Washington Post recently reported, a number of former Bush administration officials and loyalist have broken with the White House and are opposing extending No Child Left Behind.

No Child Left Behind is the essence of “big government” conservatism. The law created national rules for state-level testing and gave Congress and the Department of Education greater power to regulate local public schools and to mandate school reforms. It also upped federal spending on education programs by 26 percent. The purpose of the legislation was to use the carrot of federal funding to force schools to embrace the high stakes testing policies that President Bush had watched succeed in Texas.

But after five years, it’s increasingly clear that this big government approach to reforming American education hasn’t worked. Researchers have found that No Child Left Behind’s high stakes testing requirements are encouraging states to lower standards and make tests easier to pass. Many states and local school districts have resisted implementing No Child Left Behind’s modest school choice provisions that were supposed to help students stuck in persistently failing schools. School officials complain about the paperwork and red tape associated with complying with No Child Left Behind, which are costly and distract from the business of educating children.

While President Bush and Education Secretary Spellings continue to defend the law and want it reauthorized essentially unchanged, conservatives on Capitol Hill are rebelling. Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) and John Cornyn, (R., Tex) and Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R., Mich.) have offered proposals that enable states to opt-out of many of No Child Left Behind?s requirements. State leaders would decide how federal funds for education could be used, and would just be responsible for showing results.

One of the many virtues of this approach is that the education debate on the federal level would become much less contentious: Members of Congress would no longer have to argue about whether smaller classes or greater school choice is the best way to improve public schools around the country. Governors, state legislators, and local leaders would decide what path to pursue and how to invest their education budget. No doubt many would experiment with innovative programs that would then become models for other states.

In short, these conservatives are trying to start applying the principles of federalism and limited government to federal education policy. But are any of the party’s would-be standard bearers ready to join them?

During a recent debate, Gov. Mitt Romney expressed support for the current No Child Left Behind regime. Senator McCain voted for the original legislation in 2001, and has largely been silent on the topic during the campaign. Mayor Giuliani has called No Child Left Behind a “marginal success,” but when talking about education policy emphasizes the need for more school choice.

Sen. Thompson, who also voted for the legislation in 2001, hasn’t been pressed on his current position regarding No Child Left Behind, but he has been the strongest champion of federalism among the field. In an April commentary on National Review Online, Thompson wrote: “Republicans have struggled in recent years, because they have strayed from basic principles. Federalism is one of those principles. It is something we all give lip service to and then proceed to ignore when it serves our purposes.”

Thompson can distinguish himself from the rest of the pack by describing how he would put this principle to work in federal education policy and reforming No Child Left Behind. It might not capture the attention of the mainstream media like a statement on Iraq, the Middle East, or a controversial social issue. But by demonstrating a true commitment to limited government, Sen. Thompson can give his would-be conservative supporters much needed reassurance.

Carrie Lukas is the vice president for policy at the Independent Women’s Forum and the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism.