Almost 14 years ago, the U.S. House of Representatives voted by a huge, bipartisan margin to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, which put the federal government front and center when it came to how K-12 systems measured student performance and fixed struggling schools.
But on Wednesday, the House almost as overwhelmingly approved the Every Student Succeeds Act, 359 to 64. The bill would scale back the federal role in education for the first time since the early 1980s, handing greater control over accountability and school improvement back to states. And it would keep in place the NCLB law’s signature transparency requirements—including annual testing—and focus on helping traditonally overlooked groups of students and flailing schools.
ESSA’s political prospects appear rosy from here on out. A similar piece of legislation passed with big bipartisan support in the Senate earlier this year, and the bill is expected to sail through that chamber in coming days. And the White House has said it supports the bill.
The bill would direct states and districts to turn around their lowest-performing schools, schools with high dropout rates, and schools where so called “subgroups” of students—like English-language learners, students in special education, and racial minorities—are struggling.
It would consolidate some 50 programs into a big block grant and seriously curtail the U.S. Secretary of Education’s authority, while maintaining the Education Department’s important enforcement protections, one sponsor says.
And, in a nod to concerns that the NCLB law placed too much emphasis on a single test score in rating schools, the measure calls for states to consider other factors in gauging school performance, such as school climate and teacher engagement. (Lots more on the ins-and-outs of the bill in this cheat sheet.)
The debate on the House floor Wednesday was full of bipartisan backslapping and a sense from lawmakers across the political spectrum that ESSA strikes the right balance between flexibility for states and civil rights protections.
“Parents, teachers, superintendents, and other education leaders have been telling us for years that the top-down approach to education isn’t working,” Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, and a co-author of the bill said during the debate. “Yet some still believe that more programs, more mandates, and more bureaucrats will help get this right. Well, those days will soon be over.”
For his part, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., another architect of the legislation, said the bill offers much-needed leeway, while maintaining the civil rights legacy of the underlying law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“It maintains high standards for all children, and requires states to put into place locally designed evidence-based strategies that meet the unique needs of schools,” he said.
The tone was a big departure from July’s debate over a version of the bill backed only by Republicans that barely squeaked through. And a similar bill was pulled from consideration when it failed to garner sufficient support among Republicans back in February—in part because of opposition from the conservative Heritage Action fund. (Heritage is also not a fan of ESSA.)
Since then, however, the legislation has been merged with a bipartisan Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a sunny statement after the passage of a bill that many say would cut his successors off at the knees.
“We are encouraged that the bill passed by the House today would codify the vision that we have long advocated for giving a fair shot at a great education to every child in America - regardless of ZIP code,” he said. “The bill that the House passed today reflects more of that vision than nearly any observer expected.”
A broad coalition of civil rights, education redesign, and disability groups said in a statement Tuesday that the legislation isn’t exactly the bill that they would have written. But overall, they offered a measured endorsement.
And the groups made it clear they see the legislation as an improvement over the Obama administration’s temporary NCLB waivers. Civil rights advocates in particular are heartened by the bill’s call to get rid of so-called “supersubgroups,” which allow states to combine subgroups of students, including English-language learners, students in special education, racial minorities, and low-income children for accountability purposes.
For their part, state chiefs are jubilant—and clear that they won’t drop the ball when it comes to ensuring progress for disadvantaged students.
“We welcome accountability,” said Thomas Bice, Alabama’s state superintendent in a recent interview. “We believe in assessment. But one size doesn’t fit all. What we need in Alabama may look different than what they need in Montana.” (Teachers’ unions and school administrators are also big fans of the bill. More on reaction here.)
For his part, Duncan said the administration got a lot of its wish list, including a requirement that states turn around their lowest-performing schools, annual assessments, an investment in early education, and a program that mirrors Investing in Innovation, and Promise Neighborhoods.
(He forgot to mention that it doesn’t include a requirement for teacher evaluation through student outcomes, the continuation of the administration’s dramatic turnaround remedies,or an authorization for Race to the Top, all of which were part of the administration’s initial reauthorization vision. What’s more, the bill seeks to stamp out so-called supersubgroups and conditional waivers like the Obama administration’s, two other policies closely associated with Duncan and company.)
If all goes as expected, the bill will make it to the president’s desk by the end of the year. If so, the rest of this school year—and next school year—will help provide a transition between NCLB and the Obama administration’s waivers to the new law. And schools will be fully under ESSA in the 2017-18 school year, when a new president and education secretary will be in place.
It’s been an open question how the limits on the secretary’s power would square with the accountability provisions in the bill. Ahead of the vote, Scott told reporters he’s not worried about how those prohibitions will impact regulation and implementation of the legislation, in part because the bill doesn’t make changes to the secretary’s enforcement authority.
“It would have been nice if there was more explicit authority” for the secretary, he said. “But I think they have enough to get the job done.”
And in a wonky, but important twist, when asked if the secretary will be able to regulate on a key word in one part of the bill—"much"—Scott said he hadn’t read anything in the legislation that would appear to prohibit that.
Some background on why that matters: The legislation says that academic factors (like test scores, graduation rates, and English-language proficiency) have to weigh “much” more as a group than new indicators that get more at whether students have the opportunity to learn and are ready for college (like school climate, success in advanced course work, and student engagement).
So it sounds like the secretary could be able to help states pinpoint the right mix. (The word “much” was traded for other language that could have allowed the secretary to pinpoint a range for each indicator. The wonky backstory here.)
Staff Writer Daarel Burnette contributed to this report.
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