With yesterday’s release of a new, Senate, No Child Left Behind revision, there certainly seems to be a serious effort to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, due since 2007. Perhaps the first thing they should do, though, is keep the name simply “Elementary and Secondary Education Act” so I don’t always have to explain that the ESEA is the same as NCLB. But no: this is the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, in keeping with the political need to have names no one could possibly oppose. (You want to leave kids behind? You want some kids not to achieve?) That said, while the bill seems to be a step in the right direction, it would still keep us miles from our necessary destination: no federal education control.
The new bill, like the Student Success Act in the House (yup, another loaded name) gets rid of NCLB’s “adequate yearly progress” mandate and the cascade of punishments for schools that fail to meet it, and tries to curb the U.S. Secretary of Education’s ability to coerce states to use specific standards and tests such as the Common Core and related exams. But it would still require states to have uniform standards and tests – sorry, local control – and state accountability plans would have to be approved by the secretary. This approval provision is especially concerning because, despite NCLB giving the secretary no authority to attach conditions to waivers out of its requirements, the Obama administration attached conditions anyway. In other words, we already have concrete experience with an education secretary blatantly exceeding the authority given to him by law. To think a future administration wouldn’t do so again is wishful thinking. Yes, there is a “peer review” process for state plans, and some rules on what a secretary may not require a state to do, but never underestimate the power of regulation-writing to fill in gaps with unexpected power, or future administrations to interpret imprecise wording as expansively as possible. And the bill calls for states to have “challenging” standards, which certainly seems to require that the feds define what, exactly, “challenging” means. So maybe the worst parts of NCLB are gone, but the biggest danger – rule by executive fiat – remains.
At a higher level, the ultimate destination needs to be the scrapping of federal education governance, which neither the Senate nor the House bill comes close to doing. The reality is that several decades of serious federal meddling has produced few if any discernable, lasting improvements in academic outcomes, while costing a mint. And this holds true for the NCLB era. One can say that era--at best--saw some gains for younger children, but which were very hard to attribute to NCLB and were largely gone by the end of K-12 schooling. We also saw bigger gains for various groups in several periods before NCLB.
Oh, and there’s one more problem, though I know it’s considered quaint by some: Except for prohibiting state and local discrimination, and giving full control over federal lands, the Constitution does not permit federal education involvement. Based on the outcomes, it’s not hard to see why: National, political control of education is far too imprecise an instrument to deal with the unique needs of fifty states, thousands of communities, and millions of children. And no amount of renaming is going to change that.