Following a vote by the U.S. House of Representatives last week, the U.S. Senate has overwhelmingly voted, 85-12, to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ending more than a decade of federal education policy under the current version of the law, the beleaguered No Child Left Behind Act.
The legislation now goes to President Barack Obama, who has indicated that he will sign it. For full text of the law, go here.
Approval of the bill, titled the Every Student Succeeds Act, follows years of inaction and gridlock by Congress on the issue. Passage of the bill in a Congress that is divided on almost every other issue came unexpectedly quickly, and with a high level of bipartisan support.
In the largest turn toward local control in three decades, states will regain the authority to set their own educational goals, measurements of school performance and methods for school improvement.
From a California perspective, the new law would be largely compatible with the direction of education reforms in the state giving greater powers to local school districts, reducing the emphasis on standardized test scores in holding schools and students accountable, and moving away from top-down reforms coming from Washington.
Passage of the law removes some of the uncertainty that has hovered over California’s reform landscape — the unknown factor as to what kinds of reforms the federal government would come up with to replace NCLB, and how they would complement or conflict with the state’s reforms.
But there are still many details in the 1061-page law that will have to be analyzed and sorted through.
The State Board of Education is in the process of designing a new school improvement and testing system, so it won’t become clear for months whether aspects of the state plan will conflict with the new law. One major issue is how the state will address the new law’s requirement that it identify and intervene in the bottom 5 percent of schools, as well as in schools where subgroups of students are “consistently underperforming.” The state has been moving away from relying on a single index to measure school success or failure.
After eight years of stalemate in Congress over how to reauthorize Elementary and Secondary Education Act , the passage of a new version reflects a rare bipartisan compromise, aided by skilled legislating by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, and Patty Murray, D-Washington.
It also was fueled by congressional dislike of the waivers from NCLB that Duncan gave to 42 states and six California districts, along with conservatives’ anger over Duncan’s promotion of the Common Core State Standards. He did this through incentive grants and state waivers from the penalties of NCLB, although some Republican critics characterized the tactics as coercion and a back-door federal mandate that had not been authorized by Congress.
The revision will ban future secretaries of education from mandating additional tests, prescribing forms of teacher evaluation and promoting versions of academic standards.
In remarks on the Senate floor urging his GOP colleagues to vote for the bill, Alexander said, “We are voting for the status quo or a change. You are voting either ‘yes’ to repeal the Common Core mandate or to keep it. You are either voting ‘yes’ to get rid of the waivers, through which the U.S. Department of Education has been operating as a national school board for 80,000 schools in 40 states. Or a vote ‘no’ is saying, ‘I like the national school board.'”
Murray said that the legislation would “reduce reliance on high-stakes testing.”
“It will invest in improving and expanding access to early learning programs,” she said just before the Senate voted on the bill. “And it will help ensure that more children have access to a quality education regardless of where they live, how they learn, and how much money their parents make.”
A cross-section of education organizations, including associations of state superintendents, schools boards and teachers unions endorsed the compromise.
In a statement, Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, said the bill “marked the end to the one-size-fits-all approach to educating students and the misuse of standardized testing.”
A coalition of civil rights groups gave a more tepid backing, worried that states, left more on their own, will retreat from a commitment to closing the achievement gap. Encouraged by the state’s new funding law, which directs more resources to low-income students and English learners, and requires community engagement, civil rights groups in California expressed more optimism.
“California is a leader on many fronts, and we should show the nation how the Every Student Succeeds Act can support states in developing a holistic accountability system that provides the transparency, supports, and assurances necessary to close achievement and opportunity gaps in our state,” said Ryan Smith, executive director of the Oakland-based nonprofit Education Trust-West.
California’s two senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, voted for the bill. “This bill gives states and local school districts more flexibility to use federal funds to provide resources and to teach their students in a way that best works for them,” Feinstein said in a statement.
Boxer focused on the continuation of one of her priorities: dedicated funding for after-school programs for 1 million children. “The bill helps states support high-quality after-school programs, encourages parental engagement and ensures that after-school activities complement the academic curriculum,” she said.