Some 20 years ago, I worked as Assistant Secretary of Education in the administration of President George Herbert Walker Bush.

I was in charge of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement and also Counselor to the Secretary of Education, who was Lamar Alexander.

Secretary Alexander took a big risk with me because I was a Democrat with no prior experience in government.

I developed great admiration for him as a thinker and leader. He understood the limits of federalism and he was always careful not to use the power of the federal government to force states or localities to do what he or his party wanted.

Now he is a Senator and is the ranking Republican member of the Senate committee that oversees the Department of Education.

At hearings about the NCLB waivers last week, he expressed puzzlement that state officials want Washington to tie their hands and give them mandates.

This was the most interesting exchange, as reported in the New York Times:

At a Senate education committee hearing on Thursday to discusswaivers to states on some provisions of the law, Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, forcefully urged the federal government to get out of the way.

“We only give you 10 percent of your money,” said Mr. Alexander, pressing John B. King Jr., the education commissioner for New York State. “Why do I have to come from the mountains of Tennessee to tell New York that’s good for you?”

Dr. King argued that the federal government needed to set “a few clear, bright-line parameters” to protect students, especially vulnerable groups among the poor, minorities and the disabled.

“It’s important to set the right floor around accountability,” Dr. King said.

Now, here is the question: Why does New York State Commissioner John King fear that children who are poor, minorities, and the disabled will be neglected by his state if the federal government doesn’t demand higher test scores from them?

Does he fear that the New York Board of Regents will abandon these children?

Will Commissioner King abandon them if the federal government retreats from its unrealistic expectation that 100% of them must be proficient on state tests?

Why does he want a federal law to force him to do what he wants to do anyway?

Reading this exchange, I am reminded of Lamar Alexander’s down-home wisdom.

Please, Lamar, repeal the accountability provisions of NCLB. Restore federalism. Stop the assault on state and local control of education.

Compel the U.S. Department of Education to do what it is supposed to do by law: to protect the rights of children; to distribute federal funds where they are needed most; to collect information and conduct impartial research on the condition of American education.

And to stop imposing failed ideas on the nation’s public schools.