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The Future Is Now for NCLB... Or Is It?

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If you've been wondering what the end game is going to be for Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization, I'm about to serve up a spoiler: it ain't happening. At least not any time soon.

This should come as no surprise to anyone. If you've been paying attention, you know that Congress doesn't pass laws like it used to. Not so long ago lawmaking was right at the top of Congress' priority list, but the days of single-party control of both the legislative and executive branches look to be over for the time being, and in this political environment that seems to be what it takes to get anything done.

No Child Left Behind, which is what we call ESEA now, was actually passed under different circumstances in 2002—the main difference, of course, being that it had widespread bipartisan support in a divided Congress. The 107th Congress, which produced NCLB, featured an evenly split Senate and an almost-as-evenly split House; the Democrats had slim control in the Senate, and Republicans maintained a slight majority in the House. There are plenty of theories about why it all worked, but the most likely explanation is that the goal of creating a more equitable school system was something members of both parties could get behind. We also know that each side gave up something significant to make the bill work. For Republicans, NCLB meant dramatically increasing the federal government's role in shaping education policy, something that Democrats favored as a means of making our system more equitable. The trade-off was accountability, and, more important, the institution of a punishment-driven approach to ensuring compliance. In short, the agreement was that the federal government would try to bridge state differences in education policy but it would come with stringent new rules for accountability. The law's theory of action, as they say in policy circles, was: we're better than this. We just have to find the right balance of rewards and punishments to impel schools to get better.

The bargain worked—partly because it was a political bargain, not an educational one. But it didn't take long for the shine to wear off. For example, Ted Kennedy, the law's strongest supporter on the Democratic side, later rued the day he signed on. By 2008 he was arguing that the law had largely been a failure despite its promise. Kennedy's key point was that the fundamental ideas behind the law were sound—but that the federal government had failed to deliver the goods by withholding much-needed funding and other resources necessary to make it work. I think he was half right: the failure to deliver needed resources, while unsurprising (one of the best arguments to made for limiting the federal government's role in shaping policy is that it relies too heavily on appropriations from Congress, which are more unreliable than ever thanks to the hyper-politicization of the budget process), definitely limited NCLB's effectiveness. But the law itself is fundamentally flawed, too, because of its Skinnerian approach to making education policy. That's beside the point right now, but worthy of additional discussion some other time.

At any rate, the current approach to reauthorizing ESEA looks to be going nowhere. Remember: NCLB was a bipartisan bill. The Student Success Act, which is what the Republicans have dubbed their reauthorization bill, most certainly is not. Rep. John Kline, who is shepherding the bill through the House, made a point of not allowing any Democratic amendments to the bill as it worked its way through the committee on Education and the Workforce (that those two terms are conjoined in the name of the committee provides a hint about why education policy is moving in the direction it is). Democrats even offered their own alternative to the Republican bill, but, of course, it was not given any consideration. To keep from looking too blatantly partisan, Kline claimed that he rejected every Democratic amendment not because each one came from a Democrat but because each one proposed creating a new program or required additional funding. This meant that even a pretty reasonable amendment proposed by congresswoman Susan Bonamici, dubbed the SMART Act, was summarily rejected. Bonamici's bill would have provided support for states and districts to audit their testing programs for the purpose of eliminating duplicative and unnecessary tests. But Kline had his way: no such program exists now, so it couldn't be allowed. Bonamici withdrew the amendment.

And that's how we know this effort to reauthorize ESEA, and finally turn the page on NCLB, is probably not going to deliver us from our misery. If the Republican approach to reform is going to be to not only not change or add new programs but also freeze education funding through 2021, "effectively locking in sequestration-era cuts for the rest of the decade," as the White House put it; and lift the maintenance of effort requirement, which compels states to maintain reasonable levels of funding in order to receive federal dollars (another word for that is "accountability"); and do nothing about over-testing; then it seems highly unlikely that the president will sign it. And in our system a bill does, after all, have be signed by the president—or support for it in Congress strong enough to override a presidential veto—to actually become law. 

And let's be clear: it would be a mistake for the president to sign anything like the House bill, not least of all because of the Student Success Act's Title I portability language, which opens the door to the idea that federal money should not be spent to shore up public institutions but should instead be given to private individuals so they can decide how to use it. That might sound appealing in theory, but with nobody watching the store—remember, the removal of the maintenance of effort requirement would mean states could receive the money without ever showing that they are making investments in public education themselves, then, with the portability provision intact, compelled to hand it off to parents somehow so they could spend federal money in the "education marketplace" without accountability—it's not hard to see why some critics are seeing the Student Success Act as the privatization scheme it probably is. There is no reason to believe that such an experiment—let's call it what it is—will level the educational playing field. 

The bottom line is that whatever comes out of Congress as an alternative to NCLB—no, it won't be the Student Success Act as currently written, but, no, we shouldn't expect a lot of compromise on the Senate side, either, although there is always the chance that the threat of a filibuster will moderate things some—is likely to die if it reaches the president's desk. So where does that leave us in the meantime? Probably at square one. There will be a lot of digital ink spilled explaining the different forms this bill could take, what its impact will be, and lots of alarmist rhetoric from all sides. But unless something changes—unless real attempts at fashioning a compromise bill are taken up with sincerity—we'll have the same outdated education law still chugging along mercilessly. And then what will we do?

 

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