Senate overwhelmingly passes new national education legislation

Action by Congress to replace No Child Left Behind will affect 50 million public school students from kindergarten through 12th grade. (Ferran Traité Soler/ISTOCK)

By Lyndsey Layton
December 9 at 11:19 AM

The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved sweeping legislation that resets Washington’s relationship with the nation’s 100,000 public schools, sending significant power back to states and local districts while maintaining limited federal oversight of education.

The 85-12 vote mirrored the bill’s bipartisan passage in the House last week. President Obama plans to sign it into law Thursday.

“It is the single biggest step toward local control of public schools in 25 years,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chair of the Senate education panel and a key architect of the law, along with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). He expected it would “unleash a flood of innovation and student achievement across America, community by community and state by state.”

[The debates over education policy now shift to the states ]

The legislation will directly affect nearly 50 million public school students and their 3.4 million teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade. But its impact also will be felt by school boards, mayors, state legislators, governors, business groups, civil rights advocates, teachers unions and businesses with a stake a public school market estimated to be worth about $700 billion.

Exactly how it will play out will vary from state to state.
“When authority is devolved to the states, you can get very different outcomes,” said Jeffrey R. Henig, professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Difficult issues remain: how to insure high quality teachers, how to get those teachers into schools that most need them, how to raise the achievement of millions of struggling students. But some states have the capacity, resources and political will to make tough decisions, while others don’t, Henig said.

“It’ll be a mixed bag,” he said.

The bill, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, replaces No Child Left Behind, the 2002 signature domestic initiative of President George W. Bush that amplified Washington’s role in local classrooms. That law created a national system that judged schools based on math and reading test scores and required schools to raise scores every year or face escalating penalties.

Every Student Succeeds would erase that system and instead let each state develop its own methods for judging school quality. The bill would allow states to include additional factors, such as the amount of academic growth students make in a school year, their access to challenging courses and the degree of parent involvement at a school.

Under the bill, states are still required to test students annually in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school and publicly report the scores according to race, income, ethnicity, disability and whether students are English-language learners.

But states, not the federal government, will decide what to do about the most troubled schools, those where test scores are in the lowest five percent, achievement gaps between groups of students are greatest or where fewer than two-thirds of students fail to graduate on time.

States would decide how much weight to devote to standardized test scores and whether or how to evaluate teachers. And states would set their own goals and timelines for academic progress, though their plans would require approval from the federal Department of Education.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia — president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest union — called the bill’s passage an “end to our national nightmare and beginning of something so much better for kids.”

Others are concerned that the legislation returns the country to a time when some states and districts ignored the needs of struggling students.

“The reason we evolved to a more centralized system is because local school districts failed to act effectively on their own,” said Thomas Toch, an education policy expert at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “Many students were left behind in the era of local control, and now we’re going back to that era. It puts school districts in charge of fixing failing schools, the same school districts that are running the failing schools now.”

Alexander said he believes one result of the legislation will be to reduce over-testing, which he said is a byproduct of the federal accountability system and has become a growing national concern.

“In our Senate hearings, we heard more about over-testing than any other subject,” Alexander said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “I believe this new law will result in fewer and better tests because states and classrooms teachers will be deciding what to do about the results of those tests.”

[Standardized testing has overwhelmed U.S. schools, study finds]

Brianne Brown, a fifth-grade teacher in the Boston Public Schools, hopes Alexander is right.

“There are schools in my own district where kids are taking standardized tests every three weeks,” said Brown, a policy fellow with Teach Plus, a non-profit that tries to elevate the voices of teachers in education policy.

“It was all with the best intentions. You want them to do well on the end-of-the-year test, so then you’re like ‘Oh, let’s do some interim testing to make sure they’re on track’. But it’s crazy. It seems like the balance swung too far in one direction...I hope this new law will calm some of that down.”

The new legislation also would delete a second federal accountability system the Obama administration created, in which states were excused from the demands of No Child Left Behind if they adopted the administration’s favored policies, including teacher evaluations tied to student test scores. Forty three states and the District of Columbia hold those waivers today; they will be moot by August under the new legislation.

It is unclear whether states will retain those policies absent a federal mandate.

Both major teachers unions want states to reconsider teacher evaluation systems based on student test scores, a policy that they say does not accurately measure good teaching and has resulted in damaging unintended consequences.

“What has happened in this country is that public schooling has been reduced to testing, testing, testing,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who noted that her union already has successfully challenged the teacher evaluation system in New Mexico and has cases pending in Texas, Florida and New York.

Washington lost its waiver from No Child Left Behind last year because state lawmakers rebuffed requirements from the Obama administration to evaluate teachers based partly on student test scores.

The result forced the state to devote $40 million in federal dollars for programs it knew were ineffective, instead of using that money for things that officials said did work, such as all-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes and afterschool program

Randy Dorn, Washington’s superintendent for public instruction, said the new legislation will free his state to enact programs in the best interest of children.

“It presents a challenge to get it right and keep kids in the forefront, not what’s best for teachers, parents and politicians,” he said.

The bill’s swift passage Wednesday, and the strong bipartisan support it received, was remarkable for the fact that Democrats and Republicans had struggled for eight years to find agreement, even as states grew increasingly vocal about the need for a new law.

In broad terms, Republicans were skeptical of the federal government’s ability to improve public education, while Democrats didn’t entirely trust state and local governments to do so without pressure from Washington.

But all sides were feeling “a lot of reform fatigue”, said Martin West, an associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “There is no appetite whatsoever for muscular federal reform efforts.

That’s what drove the compromise...It’s incredible to have a major piece of domestic legislation draw such strong bipartisan support. That tells us something about the broader public mood.”

Sens. Alexander and Murray were heralded by their colleagues for crafting an agreement that broke through Congressional gridlock.

[Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray went old-school to strike a deal]

“It’s not the bill I would have written on my own,” Murray told the Senate. “And I know this isn’t the bill Republicans would have written on their own. That’s the nature of compromise.”

The bill would significantly reduce the legal authority of the education secretary, who would be legally barred from influencing state decisions about academic benchmarks, such as the Common Core State Standards, teacher evaluations and other education policies.

But Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who is stepping down at the end of this month, claimed victory, saying that the new legislation incorporates many of the administration’s ideas about the best way to improve schools, such as federal money for preschool.

That was a top priority for Murray, a former preschool teacher, who initially sought funding for preschool for low-income children but settled for a $250 million grant program to help states organize existing systems.

It will be some time before the country has evidence of whether the changes approved by Congress improve public education, said Henig, of Columbia University.

“There will be changes in some places very early as some states test the limits as to what they can do differently,” he said. “But I think it’ll take us three, four, five years before we really have a sense of how this is rippling out throughout the system.”