Is A Worthy Revision Of NCLB Really Possible?

Jeff Bryant

Confirming what a recent reporter for Reuters claimed, “the ‘do-nothing’ US Congress may actually be starting to do things.” The report hails passage of “bipartisan initiatives” such as the fix to physician reimbursement in Medicare and the demand that Congress have a say in any Iran nuclear deal reached by the Obama administration as signs “that gridlock may not be a permanent condition, after all.”

Senators are now also advancing a bipartisan bill that could revise federal policy governing K-12 public education. The Senate committee assigned with addressing federal education policy just took a huge step forward by unanimously passing a bipartisan revision to the law known as No Child Left Behind. According to a report from Education Week, “Members of the U.S. Senate education committee approved the measure 22-0 Thursday, amid much back-slapping and promises to continue working across the aisle.”

So while a law that many knowledgable people argue has failed may be heading toward a rewrite, there is an important issue that still needs to be addressed and one big potential pitfall that could thwart eventual passage of a better policy.

The first problem is a glaring oversight in the bill itself. The second is the root source of political obstructionism in Washington DC that impedes any progress.

This Didn’t Start Out Well

The first stab at rewriting that federal policy – originally, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 – came from the House of Representatives in February, and it was decidedly not bipartisan.

As I reported at the time, “The bill, HR5 the Student Success Act, was written completely by Republicans, passed through committee without any Democratic support, and has already drawn strong opposition from the Obama administration and others.”

If HR 5 is not substantially altered or tossed altogether, Democrats of all persuasion should definitely oppose this bill, and the president has threatened to veto it.

However, the way the Senate has gone about revising NCLB is a whole lot different.

A Senate Compromise Emerges

Leaders of the Senate committee responsible for drafting education legislation, Republican Chair Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Ranking Member Patty Murray of Washington, worked together on a bill, “The Every Child Achieves Act of 2015,” that avoids many of the most polarizing proposals from the House.

As Education Week’s Lauren Camera reports, “the compromise measure includes education policies that are attractive to both sides of the aisle in making over the law.” Education policy experts who often don’t agree – such as education historian Diane Ravitch and conservative think tank operative Andy Smarik from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute – each found something positive in the bill.

What’s Good About This Bill

Ravitch, writing on her personal blog, says, “This is a far better bill than I had hoped or feared.” She hails the bill’s steps to curtail misguided federal government mandates, including NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress designation, which unfairly labels schools as “failing” when they don’t show increases in intricate statistical measures related to student test scores. According to the original provision of NCLB, nearly all schools don’t meet AYP which is why the Obama administration has issued waivers to practically every state.

Ravitch also welcomes an end to federal government “dictating to states and districts how to ‘reform’ or ‘turnaround’ or ‘fix’ low-performing schools.” Ravitch is willing to trade off the bill’s upholding of current mandates for annual testing for an end to requirement that states use the test results to evaluate teachers. And she supports how the revision would make states adopt or maintain academic standards, but not necessarily the controversial Common Core.

The conservative Smarick was even more enthusiastic in his support of Every Child Achieves, calling it “the best proposal we’ve seen for solving the problem that’s held up ESEA reauthorization for ages.”

He too welcomes the retention of testing requirements, as long as “accountability plans” are upheld and “ultimate performance targets” that include “postsecondary education or work.”

Although Smarick worries the bill’s accountability enforcements may not be stringent enough, he inadvertently alerts us to a glaring hole that will have to be addressed in the amendment process.

The Proposal’s Oversight

When Smarick concludes his praise for the legislation by stating, “It focuses on the needs of all kids,” he stumbles upon where the proposal actually falls short.

The word “needs,” assumes the bill addresses inputs into the system of public education, in addition to addressing outcomes such as test scores and “college and career readiness.” Certainly students do need very specific resources, supports, and opportunities at all stages of their education if they’re going to reach their full academic attainment.

NCLB’s lack of attention to the real needs of students has always been it’s most obvious and harmful shortcoming.

As Ravitch explains in a recent article in The New York Review of Books, the federal government’s role in education originally “had one overriding purpose: to send federal funding to schools that enrolled large numbers of children living in poverty.

“Over the years,” she writes, “federal education funding for poor children has steadily grown but has never been enough to overcome the vast inequities between rich and poor.

But “NCLB decisively changed” that purpose, Ravitch argues.

NCLB continued to maintain, through the provision of Title I and other sections, additional funding from the federal government to help schools attend to the needs of students who struggle the most – children raised in poverty, students with learning disabilities, and children whose first language isn’t English. But the legislation also ushered in mandates, Ravitch contends, that replace supports and resources with standards and testing.

At a time when studies show more than half of our students are raised in poverty, and increased numbers are struggling with learning disabilities and multiple languages, any meaningful revision of federal education policy needs to increase, not decrease or simply maintain, federal intervention and oversight of equitable resources.

But as Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association explains to The Washington Post, Every Child Achieves doesn’t get her organization’s endorsement, so far, “because it does not go far enough to create equal educational opportunities for poor children.”

Garcia tells The Post reporter she and her union want “any new federal education law to address the inequities between high-poverty public schools and those in more affluent communities.”

Any new legislation, Garcia maintains, should “address the problem by requiring schools to publish an ‘opportunity dashboard’ that would disclose how much each school spends on teacher salaries, the number of experienced teachers and counselors they employ, access to Advanced Placement and honors courses and other indicators, so that disparity between schools is transparent.

The union also wants any new federal law to hold states responsible for reducing the resource gap between schools.”

These are smart proposals that Democrats on Capitol Hill should insist on adding to the bill.

The Political With Republicans

The other impediment to meaningful revision of federal education policy is Republican obstructionism.

As my colleague Dave Johnson so often points out, the common narrative about our do-nothing Congress is really mostly about Republicans. As Johnson points out, when Republicans were a minority in the Senate, they used filibusters, or threats thereof, to block legislation from going forward. Now they can use their majorities in both chambers.

In the context of education policy, Republicans have insisted for years that any revision of NCLB must include some mechanism, such as vouchers, allowing the transference of funds directed toward public education to private entities, whether they be private schools or privately operated charter schools.

As Education Week’s Alyson Klein recalled some time ago, the last time there was a serious attempt at revising NCLB, back in 2011, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky “threw a monkey wrench into the Senate markup” to propose multiple amendments to the bill, including proposals for vouchers.

This year, Republicans in the House and Senate Republicans as well, in the amendment process of Every Child Achieves, have proposed “Title I portability” that would let low-income parents who withdraw their students from public schools take a portion of federal dollars provided to that school and use that money to send their children elsewhere.

Vouchers and Title I portability are radical departures from the original purpose of ESEA, and President Obama has quite rightly insisted he would veto any legislation containing these provisions.

Worthy NCLB Revision Is Possible

Without a doubt, the Senate committee that produced Every Child Achieves has done outstanding work in creating a promising revision of a badly outdated and misguided law.

The bill weathered an amendment process in committee that was curtailed by Alexander’s plea for restraint. As Politico reports, the one amendment to surface during debate was a call for Title I portability coming from Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. Fortunately, Scott withdrew the amendment

Should the bill reach the Senate floor, and get acted on in the House, Democrats at some point should come forth with a proposal to include some provision that would ensure more equitable resources for schools that face the most difficult challenges. And Republicans need to heed those in their party who genuinely want to govern, and abandon any school privatization schemes.

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