5 Thoughts on ESSA
I'm still shocked that the Every Student Succeeds Act actually got done. As late as this fall, I figured the odds that it would happen were really, really long. Shows what I know. Meanwhile, all the people who breathlessly predicted it would happen in 2010... and 2011... and 2012... and 2013... and 2014... finally got it right. Yay! Anyway, now that the dust has settled, here are five quick thoughts on what went down last week.
First, I obviously like it. The big shifts broadly track with what I've been urging for a long while (as in the Conservative Reform Network's "Room to Grow" compilation or in "A Federal Education Agenda" with my colleague Andrew Kelly). It retains NCLB's federal framework for testing reading and math in grades 3-8 and again in high school, in addition to science in elementary, middle, and high school, while getting the federal government out of the business of trying to judge teacher or school quality or how to "fix" schools. This strikes me as congruent with what the federal government is supposed to do in our system and can do competently. In that, it did something exquisitely rare, which is to shrink the federal footprint in the domestic sphere (the normal course of events is a steady increase of federal control). I'd argue, in fact, that this marks the sharpest reversal of federal ambitions in domestic policy in 20 years—since the welfare reform act of 1996.
Second, in order to get done, ESSA required a pretty particular confluence of circumstances. Crucially, I don't think it would ever have made it without Lamar Alexander and his staff's role. Alexander brought immense credibility on these issues, a record of having challenged Duncan's Department of Education on its troubling overreach, and a history of being able to work across the aisle. Meanwhile, he has a veteran staff that knew the law cold, knew where their nonnegotiables were, and were savvy enough to compromise on particulars while safeguarding principle. Of course, the table was set for all this by the unintended consequences of NCLB and the fact that Duncan's imperial posturing hadn't finally united right and left in the desire to rein him in.
Third, as a conservative, it's nice for the first time in eons to look at a piece of "bipartisan" legislation and not feel like conservatives have to hunt for scraps of silver lining to feel good about the outcome. It's fun to watch Obama's spin shop and its allies desperately try to overinterpret this and that lightweight provision in order to reassure themselves about the deal. Nothing captured this better than Patty Murray and Lamar Alexander taking their bows. Alexander noted that the law did a pretty fair job of slamming the door on decades of federal overreach and reshaping the national education landscape. Murray? She enthused that she succeeded in codifying in statute a pre-K program that already existed. Shrewd.
Fourth, left-leaning school reformers who don't like the law are lamenting the reduction of federal authority as a loss for the nation's students. In a fairly clever Game of Thrones-inspired column, Andy Rotherham depicted federal involvement in schooling as a "hedge" against inequity. I found that a remarkably telling word choice. It suggests a sophisticated strategy of risk management. In fact, I'd argue that the federal "hedge" is a series of mandates, rules, regulations, and "guidance" that mostly create unintended distortions and fuel a pervasive culture of compliance. It provides "political cover" which pushes state officials to miscalculate, pursue change on a political timeline favored by the U.S. Department of Education, and ignore in-state concerns. It strikes me that those troubled by a reduced federal role seem to imbue federal efforts in this area with a sleekness, modesty, and effectiveness which I don't recognize. Now, as we return authority to states and districts, no one should imagine that folks in the states are somehow smarter or more informed than their counterparts in Washington (although I've never quite understood why Washington-centric reformers are so confident that the obverse is true—that political appointees at the U.S. Department of Education are nobler, smarter, and care more than those yahoos out there in the states. Ah, well). In any event, to my mind, the biggest virtue of state and local control is simple: leaders are responsible for the results of their handiwork.
Finally, there are those on the right who are not at all happy with the law. They're troubled by the Obama administration's enthusiastic spinning, the codification of Murray's new pre-K program, the failure to more fully dismantle the apparatus of federal micro-management, and much else. Some are exasperated with this refusal to settle for 80% of a loaf. Personally, I think that kind of skepticism is healthy. After all, the Bush administration taught conservatives to regard "bipartisan deal" as a euphemism for "we got rolled". And the Obama administration has a long history of overstepping statutory bounds and working to extend Washington's reach. Against that backdrop, compromise deals are unappealing, and paper assurances are going to seem unreliable. And, while I think that ESSA is a win for students, schools, and principle, I get the doubts. I can't swear that the Department of Education (under Obama . . . or Clinton) won't find ways to ignore or distort the law's language, and I do have concerns about how the particulars and the rule-making will shake out. So, I give the deal a solid B, but that grade is certainly open to revision as events shake out.