Every Student Succeeds Act, the long-awaited successor to NCLB/ESEA
When federal lawmakers took up a draft proposal earlier this year, they seemed poised to weaken the law by watering down its protections for impoverished children. Fortunately, the compromise version that passed the House last week and that deserves to pass the Senate as well preserves important parts of the original law while eliminating some significant flaws.
…The bill isn't perfect. But it is a considerable improvement over the original law and would continue pushing schools toward better performance.
Civil rights groups, which fought hard to keep some requirement that states intervene in the lowest-performing schools as well as schools that consistently failed to educate racial minorities or poor students, cautiously welcomed the bill.
But they expressed concerns that without sufficient federal intervention, numerous children would still be left behind.
"This certainly makes us nervous," said Liz King, director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "The lesson of the civil rights movement and community is that the federal government is the defender of vulnerable children and we are worried that with new state and local authority, vulnerable children are going to be at risk."
But others said states and local communities were better able to meet the educational needs of students. "This now means that instead of directing your attention to Washington, you now need to direct your attention to Albany and Trenton and Columbus," said Andy Smarick, partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting and research group.
"Over the past 10, almost 15 years," he continued, "we've so focused on reading and math scores and this is the real opportunity to make sure we're capturing the things that are important, whether it's grit and persistence or school culture or parent engagement, and the only way to do that is to give power back to the states. You cannot centrally manage an innovative, creative accountability system from Washington D.C."
That's why the champion of the bill in Congress, former Secretary of Education and current Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, is probably right when he says that the new law will unleash innovation in some states and school districts. At times federal rules and programmatic requirements do interfere with state and local innovation. But those rules and requirements also play a vital role in protecting groups of students who have traditionally been underserved by the public schools – in particular low-income students, minority students and those with special needs. It's not by accident that more attention was paid to the needs of these students during the No Child era than ever before.
Many conservatives have long argued that the costs of these federal rules outweigh their benefits, making this sort of quality unevenness at least preferable to the alternatives. That's a debatable premise in the face of both actual data and history, but not a crazy one if one assumes times have changed and this is an era of reform. And the teachers unions and the traditional education establishment are on board with all this. They see the accountability rules, which are hard on adults in the education system and embarrassing for the underperformance they lay bare, as loathsome. Localized decisionmaking is a boon for them because they hold more political sway in states and localities. That's the odd political marriage and the two bets that birthed this new law.
For students in states with leaders who are deeply committed to equity and prepared to stand up to the myriad special interests in the education sector on behalf of students the new policy could be a win. There is plenty of room for innovation. But students in states without those elements or lacking alignment among key policymakers may be facing years of educational stagnation, or worse backsliding, at a time when they and the country can ill afford it. There is plenty of room for cosmetic rather than real fixes – traditionally the way things are done.
So for individual Americans, whether this law represents progress or not depends a lot on what side of our educational wall you happen to live on and where you go to school. That's exactly the kind of randomness and inequity the federal government has traditionally tried to hedge against in education policy. Now, creating the conditions for it is heralded as a bipartisan breakthrough. And although you'd be excused for thinking otherwise given the craziness of the education debate, it's not a fantasy show. For American students, especially the most disadvantaged among them, this is real life.
A New Education Law Is Coming
States now have free rein on accountability, and that'll be bad news for some students.
This might not end well.