The U.S. Senate voted 81-17 on July 17 to pass a bipartisan overhaul of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was last serviced in 2002. The passing of the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA) came only days after the House passed its own bill, the Student Success Act, which passed without a single Democratic vote. In order to land on President Obama’s desk to be signed into law, the two bills must now be reconciled in a conference committee. The bills have been in committee for over a month now, affording think tanks, policymakers, and young education professionals alike plenty of time to dissect and debate its content. GOP lawmakers, who hold the majority in both the Senate and the House, want to reduce the role of the federal government and give states greater responsibility for managing their own public education systems. Liberal lawmakers and civil rights activists claim that the two bills, especially the House bill, do not put enough pressure on states to improve low performing schools, and President Obama has already threatened to veto the House bill.
The House and Senate rewrites both stray far from the original goal of ESEA. Initially signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, ESEA was part of Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and the largest federal education bill to be passed. As a former teacher, Johnson believed a quality education was vital in ensuring future success in a child’s life. Inequality in education is still as relevant today as it was in the 1960s, with more than 40% of low income schools receiving less than their fair share of state and local funds. By removing amendments enforcing accountability and standards, congress would be neglecting low-income and minority students, the very people the original bill intended to reach.
The two bills divert strongly from NCLB. Control of testing requirements and accountability are being handed from the federal government to states. While conservative legislators argue that accountability should be decided internally by states, a study by the Rand Corporation has demonstrated that external measures are in fact more effective in encouraging performance improvement and accountability. Under NCLB, the federal government sets goals based on test scores to determine which schools fail to reach those goals and need to be reformed. With no enforcement from the executive branch, states can essentially get away with neglecting failing schools. Federal accountability means states must act to reform failing schools, whether they are in the suburbs or the inner city, or whether the majority of voters in that state will be affected by the changes or not. Federal accountability ensures that low income students are not being left behind.
The Senate’s ECAA proposal won’t continue NCLB’s federal test-based accountability system. It instead allows states to decide the weight of standardized tests and how results would be used for accountability purposes. The bill will continue to allocate funds to low-income schools but would also remove amendments requiring test results to be reported by race and income – factors which have been used in determining which schools could use more attention and funding. Meanwhile, the House bill would gut a provision requiring states to test 95% of all students, instead giving students the right to deny a test (with their parents’ permission) with no legitimate reason and with no penalty to the school. This could reduce the number of low income and minority students taking the tests, leaving states less able to determine which schools are serving those students well.
Both bills also seek to drastically reform the role of standards. Currently, states can either choose to abide by Common Core State Standards or create their own standards. If they choose the latter, higher education institutions must approve their curriculum as one which will prepare students for college and the workforce. Standards help ensure educational equity by guaranteeing that low-performing and high-performing schools are held to the same rigorous expectations. This is particularly important considering that students of color and low income students are statistically much less likely to have access to rigorous coursework than their whiter, wealthier counterparts. Maintaining and enforcing a set of strict standards will ensure that disadvantaged students are being taught similar curriculums to students at leading schools, giving them the opportunity to receive a quality education and excel in life to achieve the same level of success as their wealthier counterparts,
The House bill diverts from NCLB by giving states flexibility, explicitly prohibiting the Secretary of Education from “coercing” a state to adopt any particular set of standards, including Common Core. In fact, the bill includes language clearly stating that states can ditch Common Core with no penalty. The Senate bill is not as conservative. It only prohibits the Secretary of Education from using federal funds to incentivize states to adopt a particular set of standards, including common core standards.
We need to stay honest to President Johnson’s goal in passing the ESEA. We need to know that all of our schools are teaching at high standards and that all students are given equal access to a quality education. If re-written with this in mind, the bill could have the potential to raise standards and improve the quality of education for millions of students, as it was originally designed to do. Instead of sticking with the “party agenda” and trying to vote “conservatively” on these issues, GOP lawmakers need to do what is right for our children and the nation by making the decisions that will prepare our youth for college and the workforce, guarantee equity, and ensure we continue to compete in the global market.
Darien Salehy is a researcher and legal assistant at White & Case LLP working on civil rights cases, litigation, and arbitration. Reach him via email.