Tag: nclb

ESSA Seems Ripe for Federal Control

Think the end of the No Child Left Behind Act means the end of federal micromanagement? You may have to think again.

As I’ve laid out before, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has several ambiguities that seem to keep the door open for continued federal control over state standards, tests, and accountability mechanisms, even as the law has some provisions that seem to prohibit federal intervention. What, for instance, constitutes “challenging” state standards, and who determines that? Or who decides what the right mix of academic and non-academic factors is in school accountability schemes? It certainly seems that because this is federal law, and it includes required federal approval of state plans, there will be federal control.

A report on comments from numerous interest and advocacy groups as the U.S. Department of Education prepares to write ESSA regulations – frankly, where law is really made – only bolsters the fear of continued federal domination. While some groups are certainly calling for a light federal touch, others clearly want continued force. As the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now – hardly just a player in the Nutmeg State – wrote:

As you establish rules and regulations around the ESSA, we urge you to maintain challenging and high standards for all students, ensure high-quality, valid and reliable annual statewide assessments, and implement comprehensive and robust school and district accountability and performance systems that help identify and improve our highest need schools and districts.

Sound like a light federal touch? Not to me, either.

Thankfully, rules and regs haven’t been written yet, and there is still time to address what appear to be very real threats of continued federal control both specifically in the law, and ultimately in regulation. And address them we shall on February 16, when Cato will host a debate between experts who see the ESSA as returning power to states and districts, and those who see that as a very uncertain proposition. Or maybe you think the law goes too far removing influence from DC. Well we’ll tackle that, too, especially if you join us – either in-person or online, and using #FedsLeaveEd on Twitter – and ask our panel about it.

Does the ESSA really relinquish federal power? That remains an open question, and lots of people – including at Cato – will be debating what the answer should be.

Good Bye NCLB, Hello ESSA

President Obama has just signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, ending the era of No Child Left Behind. If nothing else, that big majorities of both parties in Congress felt the need to greatly ease federal force in elementary and secondary education – at least overt federal force – is a powerful testament to the breadth of the public backlash against federally driven standardization, testing, and “accountability.” That backlash may well have hit a tipping point thanks to the Common Core, through which the federal government attempted to get states not just to have state curriculum standards and tests, but national standards and tests. In other words, Washington began to influence the specifics of what children across the country would learn.

Is the ESSA much better than NCLB? No, and it could potentially end up taking very little power away from Washington even though the language surrounding it has been all about returning authority to states and districts. But that the rhetoric about the federal role has had to change so greatly is a very encouraging thing.

Of course, the work of getting Washington to obey the Constitution by getting out of education – and of fundamentally changing the education system to one based in freedom – is nowhere near complete. But at least things may be heading in the right direction.

Better Than NCLB? That’s Not Saying Much

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the intended successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, is better than the law it would replace. That is what many analysts are saying as they hail the legislation as a good step in the right direction. But let’s be honest: you couldn’t set a bar much lower than NCLB. And there are some potential problems that could make the ESSA just as dangerous as the law it would supplant.

To be fair, the ESSA is, overall, probably better than NCLB, and it may well have been the best compromise possible given political reality. Most notably, it eliminates NCLB’s uber-intrusive requirement that numerous groups of students make “adequate yearly progress” on state tests lest schools be subject to a cascade of punishments. It also tries to keep the Secretary of Education from requiring the use of specific curriculum standards such as the Common Core, though it should be noted that the Core was pushed not by the letter of NCLB, but funding from the 2009 “stimulus” and Obama administration NCLB waivers that were almost certainly illegal.  

It is in responding to the power grabs of the current administration that the ESSA may fall, in practice, very short of actually eliminating executive – much less federal – control over the public schools. The bill would keep federal requirements that states have curriculum standards – indeed, “challenging” standards – and tests, and hold schools accountable for performance on them. Moreover, while the bill says the Secretary shall not “mandate, direct, control, coerce, or exercise any direction or supervision” over state standards, it also says that the Secretary must approve state accountability plans. In other words, as I’ve written before, it does not appear that the Secretary can state specifically what a plan must have, but the Ed Sec could potentially veto plans that he deems inadequate until – wink, wink – he gets what he wants.

NCLB Compromise Looking Pretty Bad

Is pre-kindergarten part of elementary and secondary education? By definition, no. But according to preliminary reports about what is in a compromise to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act – really, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – a preschool “competitive grant” program will be added to the law. And that’s just one of several troubling items that will reportedly be in the final legislation.

One hallmark of good lawmaking are laws that are easily understood by the people, and larding on lots of items not germane to the topic of a law is one way to move away from that democratic ideal. Adding pre-k to the ESEA lards on, though as I’ll discuss in a moment, apparently the preschool addition isn’t all that will heavily complicate the legislation.

The bigger problem with expanding federal funding and reach on preschool is that the evidence is preschool has few if any lasting benefits, at least that have been rigorously documented for any large, modern efforts. Infamously, that includes Head Start and Early Head Start, which the federal government’s own studies have found to be largely impotent, and in the case of Early Head Start, potentially detrimental to some groups. The compromise would apparently also keep the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which federal research has also shown to be impotent or even counterproductive, but at least it is k-12.

Opt Out Tests If Child’s a “Mere Creature of the State”

The Common Core War, over the last few months, has been fought on a largely new front: whether students can be forced to take state tests – in the vast majority of cases, Core-aligned tests – or whether parents and students can refuse. It is perhaps an even more fundamental question than whether the federal government may constitutionally coerce standardization and testing generally, and with Common Core, specific standards and tests. The testing battle is to a large extent about whether a child, in seeming opposition to the seminal Supreme Court ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, is indeed a “mere creature of the State.”

The opt-out numbers are hard to pin down, though there is little question that some districts have seen very large percentages while others – probably the large majority nationwide – have seen few. It is also probably reasonable to conclude that the leader of the opt-out crusade has been New York State, where animosity toward the Core has been high since the state first rushed implementation and state officials, in an effort to calm things, actually inflamed them with a condescending approach to public engagement that launched weeks of recriminations. Last year the state saw an estimated 60,000 students opt out, which leapt to nearly 200,000 this year.

The root question, of course, is should students and parents be able to opt out without fear of punishment? And since punishment would be coming from a government institution – yes, that is what a public school is – that means without fear of punishment by the state. If children are, in part, creatures of the state – and Pierce did not say there is no legitimate state role in education – than punishment is legitimate. If, however, the public schools exist to serve fully free citizens, then punishment cannot be meted out for refusing the test; it is up to parents to freely decide whether or not their children are subjected to the tests.

Kill the Whole Jellyfish, or the Tentacles Will Grow

There’s a lot of debate right now about whether conservatives (I don’t know if anyone thinks libertarians can be reached) should support current No Child Left Behind reauthorization efforts. The “support this” argument is that bills in the House and Senate are not ideal because they would keep a major federal role in education, but they would end many bad things in NCLB and conservatives should take what they can get politically. But we just got a terrific illustration of what happens when you cut off just a few jellyfish tentacles: they grow back.

Yesterday, an amendment was passed in the markup of the Senate bill that would restore the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. What is the 21st CCLC? A Clinton Era program that furnishes funds – $1.2 billion in FY 2015 – for before- and after-school activities and summer programs. The problem: It appears to be a failure. As I discussed a few years ago, federal studies of the program found it not only largely ineffectual, but possibly even a negative influence. As a 2005 report summarized:

Conclusions: This study finds that elementary students who were randomly assigned to attend the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program were more likely to feel safe after school, no more likely to have higher academic achievement, no less likely to be in self-care, more likely to engage in some negative behaviors, and experience mixed effects on developmental outcomes relative to students who were not randomly assigned to attend the centers.

It isn’t just Cato folk who’ve stumbled on the research. The Brookings Institutions’ Mark Dynarski just laid into the 21st CCLC last month, writing that evaluations “reported on how the program affected outcomes. In a series of reports released between 2003 and 2005…the answers emerged: the program didn’t affect student outcomes. Except for student behavior, which got worse.”

Illegal “No Child” Waivers Should Raise Much Louder Alarms

If the outcry over unilateral executive moves we’ve seen over the last few years remains consistent, Obamacare and immigration are likely to keep sucking up most of Republicans’ attention and the media’s coverage. But just as sweeping have been executive waivers issued from the hated No Child Left Behind Act – really the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – that have been instrumental in connecting numerous states to, among other things, the Common Core national curriculum standards. And yesterday, the Education Department issued guidance offering states the chance to obtain waivers – if they do the administration’s bidding, of course – lasting well into the term of the next president: the 2018-19 school year.

These waivers are almost certainly illegal – even a Congressional Research Service report often cited to suggest the opposite says they are unprecedented in scope and, hence, an untested case – and even if they are not deemed technically illegal, the reality is they still amount to the executive department unilaterally making law. NCLB does grant the Secretary of Education the authority to issue waivers from many parts of the Act, but it grants no authority to condition those waivers on states adopting administration-preferred policies. Indeed, as University of South Carolina law professor Derek W. Black writes in a recent analysis of waivers, not only does NCLB not authorize conditional waivers, even if a court were to read any waiver authorization as implicitly authorizing conditions, the actual conditions attached – “college- and career-ready standards,” new teacher evaluations, etc. – fundamentally change the law. In fact the changes, Black notes, are essentially what the administration proposed in its 2010 “blueprint” to reauthorize NCLB. And quite simply, the executive fundamentally changing a law is not constitutional.

The latest waiver guidance goes beyond even the toxic status quo. Not only is the President using his vaunted pen and phone to unilaterally make education law, but law that would continue well into his successor’s term. It is a very dangerous move that, quite frankly, deserves at least as much alarmed coverage as Obamacare waivers and immigration actions. If for no other reason, because the action is moving us swiftly toward a de facto federal curriculum. In other words, direct control over what the vast majority of the nation’s children learn.

Federal power can’t get much more invasive than that.

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