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Can 'Every Student' Succeed Where the Feds Have Failed?

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I admit it: I was wrong.

I bet against Congress. I told you not to hold your breath if you were hoping for No Child Left Behind to be kicked to the curb. And I said it only ten months ago. "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," I wrote. "It ain't happening. At least not any time soon." To be honest, it seemed like a safe bet. 

Yet, in ten short months NCLB has been transformed. It's no longer a permanent part of our everyday lives. Instead, it looks increasingly likely that NCLB will be consigned to history's dustbin.

Now my definition of "soon" might not be the same as yours, but I want to be the first to admit that this happened a lot more quickly than I thought it would. In my own defense, let me say that the bill that was being considered back in February, called "The Student Success Act," is not the same bill the House of Representatives passed today by an overwhelming margin. It was a bill that was being shepherded through the legislative process by Rep. John Kline, who, at the time, was summarily rejecting Democratic amendments and making no apparent effort to push anything but a very conservative reauthorization of ESEA to the floor. That bill had language in it supporting Title I portability (since removed). That bill proposed weakening maintenance of effort requirements (they have been re-strengthened). That bill was crafted in an environment in which its primary sponsor was arguing that no new programs could be added in the bill, geared toward locking in "sequestration-era funding levels" for another decade. That requirement, apparently, was dropped.

The new bill, which is being dubbed "The Every Student Succeeds Act" (ESSA)—what a difference a few words make—drops many of the demands Kline had made in the earlier bill and includes some compromises, especially with regard to limiting the federal role in shaping education policy and requiring states to continue reporting disaggregated student test results. The compromises were apparently good enough to make about 85% of the House membership happy. When's the last time 85% of the House agreed on anything?

And so it gives me pause. I don't mind admitting I was wrong, but I can't help but wonder if this is going to be as great as everyone in Washington seems to think it is. In fact, I think this great compromise signals a great failure on the part of Congress: the failure of members of Congress to really come together and articulate a vision for public education. 

To be fair, maybe it's not the job of Congress to do that. It probably isn't. But the one thing the architects of ESSA seemed intent on doing was sharply curtailing the power of the federal government, and especially the U.S. Department of Education, to shape education policy, and in doing that they seem to be setting us up for a trip back to the future. Arne Duncan, as secretary of education, was a bipartisan punching bag; but at some point Duncan was bound to leave office (he's on his way out now), and a new secretary might have brought a more measured approach to giving a national voice to education policy. It may still happen. But future secretaries are likely to wield about as much influence as the Surgeon General. With all due respect to the Surgeon General, advocacy is one thing. Actively shaping policy is another.

That seems to be exactly how we want it these days. Conservatives are perfectly happy to see policy issues settled in state houses, where ALEC wields outsized influence and where the sunshine doesn't shine quite so brightly. At the other end of the spectrum, ESSA offered Democrats a chance to roll back a law that teachers' unions, in particular, bitterly opposed. Any time you can stop alienating a key component of your base, the laws of politics say you'd better do it.

But there is a cost to this political maneuvering. This probably settles, once and for all, the debate about the extent to which the federal government should wield its power and influence (and pocketbook) to level the playing field for poor children. I know, I know—the testing continues, and the disaggregated reporting does too. So we'll know who's doing poorly. Will we have the resources needed to turn that around?

Moreover, this bill effectively shifts education off the national agenda and into the less scrutinized and shadier worlds of state politics. It seems to suggest that we don't want a national education policy at all, or, at least, that our national policy is to let the states decide. That sounds great if it works out, but not great if states—not all of which have sterling track records when it comes to protecting the rights of poor and minority students—fail to hold up their end of the bargain. 

So: will students be better off in a world where they all succeed, as opposed to one in which none are left behind? I have to wonder. This bill may slam the door on NCLB and, for that matter, A Nation at Risk, too. It probably signals the end of a movement that began when Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980 promising to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education, but that was temporarily deraild when Terrel Bell, whom Reagan appointed as secretary, surprised his boss by signing off on A Nation at Risk. That report set the course for three decades of increased federal involvement in education. Now the politics have shifted again: the great experiment in federal oversight seems to be winding down, just as Reagan would have wanted. The department may still be around, but it won't be what it was. I'm not sure yet if that's a good thing.

I do think, no matter how you cut it, that this bill is a big win for conservatives who want to shift power from the federal government to the states (notice I didn't say "reduce the size or power of government," because I don't think that's what they're really about). This is about controlling a policy agenda, and in that regard it doesn't exactly presage a future that we can get excited about. Not one I can get excited about, anyway. Instead, I think it sends a clear message to kids who may not come from privileged backgrounds: you're on your own if you live in a state that doesn't believe in educating you. Grab those bootstraps and get to work.

Pulling in the same direction, as unreachable as the goal may be, isn't popular now and it may never be; but pulling in 50 different directions, with no apparent shared goal in sight at all, hardly seems like progress. Is this the best bill we could have gotten? I doubt it. It's better than what we had, and in these polarized times that might be the best we can do. But it makes me wish we had held out for something better.

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