U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan thinks the country’s oldest K-12 federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), known today as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is “outmoded and broken.” He’s right about that.

But his proposed “solution” perpetuates the very federal involvement that just made things more cumbersome and expensive—not better. As Duncan explains:

Washington’s role is to protect children at risk and promote opportunity for all. The federal government is not, and will never be, in the business of telling states or schools what or how to teach. But it cannot shirk its role of ensuring that schools and students meet the high bar that prepares them for the real world. History shows that, without some kind of accountability, states and districts do not always meet the needs of the most vulnerable students. …

States must play the central role in leading the education agenda — and their work in partnership with the Education Department provides a road map toward a better law. These states have established high standards, robust teacher and principal evaluations and support systems, smart use of data, and ambitious learning goals. They have made bold efforts to improve our lowest-performing schools. They are also adopting assessments that move beyond today’s fill-in-the-bubble tests.

NCLB was due to be reauthorized in 2007, but until a few weeks ago, no bill made it out of Congress. The House reauthorization bill, the Student Success Act, is only mildly better than what we have now because it gives states more flexibility, consolidates many federal education programs, and prevents Washington from imposing Common Core National standards.

Duncan prefers the reauthorization bill passed by the Senate Democrats, the 1,150 page Strengthening America’s School Act, because it enshrines several pet Obama administration policies.  Teachers would have to be evaluated, but their evaluations couldn’t be used in hiring or firing decisions—a toothless accountability measure that is palatable enough for teachers unions. States would also be required to adopt some form of Common Core national standards, too.

Duncan adds, “Yet some in Congress would reduce the federal government to a passive check-writer, asking nothing in return for taxpayers’ funds.” In reality, both the Republican and Democratic NCLB reauthorization plans share a common fatal flaw to one degree of another: the belief that Washington knows best.

A better plan coming out of Washington is the Local Education Authority Returns Now Act (LEARN). Under LEARN all associated funding for NCLB would be returned to taxpayers, who would then decide which programs would work best for them.

Most important, under such a plan true accountability over education would rest where it truly belongs: with parents, not with Washington politicians and appointees.