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.
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.
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.
There are many good reasons to oppose a federal school voucher program, but a supposed lack of evidence that school choice improves student outcomes isn't one of them. Sadly, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking minority member of the U.S. Senate's education committee, repeated this canard during the debates over a proposed amendment that would have added a federal school voucher program to the No Child Left Behind replacement bill:
What’s more, studies of voucher programs in Milwaukee and the District of Columbia have shown that they do not improve students’ academic achievements, she said. “Study after study has shown that vouchers do not pay off for students or taxpayers,” Murray said.
That's simply not true. According to Dr. Patrick Wolf, coauthor of the only longitudinal study of the effect of Milwaukee's voucher program, “school choice in Milwaukee has had a modest but clearly positive effect on student outcomes.”
First, students participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice (“voucher”) Program graduated from high school and both enrolled and persisted in four-year colleges at rates that were four to seven percentage points higher than a carefully matched set of students in Milwaukee Public Schools. Using the most conservative 4% voucher advantage from our study, that means that the 801 students in ninth grade in the voucher program in 2006 included 32 extra graduates who wouldn’t have completed high school and gone to college if they had instead been required to attend MPS.
Second, the addition of a high-stakes accountability testing requirement to the voucher program in 2010 resulted in a solid increase in voucher student test scores, leaving the voucher students with significantly higher achievement gains in reading than their matched MPS peers.
In the final year of the study, Milwaukee voucher students in grades 3-9 performed about 15 percent of a standard deviation higher on standardized reading tests, “a modest but meaningful educational difference.” Moreover, the study concluded that Milwaukee district-school students were “performing at somewhat higher levels as a result of competitive pressure from the school voucher program.” And contrary to Sen. Murray's assertion that "vouchers do not pay off for taxpayers," the study found that the voucher program saved the state nearly $52 million in fiscal year 2011 because the vouchers were worth about half of the cost per-pupil at the district schools.
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.”
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.
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.