Many agree that our current federal education law No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is broken, but Congress is having trouble agreeing on how to fix it. (NCLB is the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, our primary federal education bill passed in 1965). These next few months are seen as the crucial window for updating this troubled law during President Obama’s tenure, as Presidential campaigns will take over after that.
Signed into law in 2002 by President George W. Bush, NCLB held schools accountable for student sub-group performance and declared a lofty, and now widely seen as unrealistic goal: that all students would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. The bill also extended the federal role in an unprecedented way: it outlined sanctions that schools would face if they did not meet certain school-wide proficiency targets known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). These targets have led to a hyper-focus on high-stakes testing that drive these school scores.
Both Democrats and Republicans see the folly in many of the components of NCLB. Scores of teachers, principals and parents have weighed in that this approach is unfair to students and teachers, particularly in high-need schools that need more support. What Congress cannot agree on, despite their common ire for the bill, is the right way to replace NCLB, and the proper role-and size-of the federal government.
One can point to a set of key tensions that are confounding Congress:
- Accountability: who holds schools accountable – federal government or states – and what should be the consequences for schools be that do not measure up?
- Testing: whether to keep annual testing or adopt grade-span testing to reduce the frequency
- Standards and proficiency: how much say the federal government has in state standards, and whether to set achievement targets for student performance as NCLB did
- Funding: how much federal funding, and whether to give this to states through specific programs, as it currently exists, or bundle them into a single block grant to allow states and districts to determine how to spend it
- Required vs. allowable language: what elements should be required in ESEA vs. understood as allowable for states to choose to take on, such as reporting of indicators beyond test scores like attendance and discipline
- The importance of supports for student achievement, including family and community engagement: how much funding for these factors and what are states’ and districts’ responsibilities to address them
The Coalition for Community Schools at IEL is working to ensure that a set of key principles are embedded in ESEA reauthorization. The principles that we are advocating for include:
- Incentives for results-driven public-private partnerships;
- Broadened indicators for states and districts to report on beyond achievement, including attendance, family engagement, student discipline, and health and wellness;
- Stronger definitions of family and community engagement and clarity about how they can contribute to student achievement and well-being; and
- Consultation by states and districts with a broader array of stakeholders including community partners.
We submitted to Congress our recommendations signed by 47 national organizations that span education, health, youth development and civil rights. These recommendations were echoed by witnesses at a Senate ESEA hearing, including Henriette Taylor, a community school coordinator from Baltimore, MD; Superintendent Jim McIntyre of Knoxville, TN; and principal Dr. Susan Kessler from Nashville, TN.
On April 16, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee unanimously passed its bipartisan ESEA bill, the Every Child Achieves Act, out of committee. The bill contains many “wins” for community schools that we summarize here.
So where does reauthorization stand now? Chairman Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Murray (D-WA) of the Senate HELP Committee are trying to get their bill to the Senate floor before the Memorial Day recess that begins May 22, but there is a legislative backlog of items that are competing for floor time. The House sped through a partisan committee markup in February but the bill received significant backlash on the floor, so House leaders are working to get the bill on the floor for reconsideration. Politico has great coverage of the key events and tensions in the House that led to this embarrassing backlash against the bill.
The clock is ticking for a reauthorization this year before attention turns to the 2016 elections; we’ll see if Congress can prioritize education as it deserves to be, and send a new bill to the President to sign.
Mary Kingston Roche, Public Policy Manger, Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership (Twitter: @kingston_m)