July 7, 2015

The Education Act Needs to Be Reauthorized

  • The Elementary and Secondary Education Act has not been reauthorized since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which expired in 2007.

  • In the absence of congressional action to reauthorize the ESEA, the Obama administration has taken unilateral action through conditional waivers from portions of the law.

  • The bipartisan Every Child Achieves Act restores responsibility to states and local school districts for improving public schools.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is the primary source of federal aid for K-12 education. It was last amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and was authorized through fiscal year 2007. While Congress has not reauthorized the ESEA since NCLB expired, its programs continue to receive annual appropriations. Since 2011, the Secretary of Education has granted waivers to 43 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico – conditioned upon states agreeing to implement education policies not required under law. It’s time for Congress to definitively establish the goals, and limits, of federal education policy.

Lamar Alexander quote

On April 16, the HELP Committee voted unanimously to reverse years of inaction and report bipartisan legislation to reauthorize the ESEA through fiscal year 2021. The Every Child Achieves Act seeks to restore responsibility to states and local school districts for improving public schools. It provides increased flexibility for them to design and implement education programs, including those related to academic standards and assessments, accountability systems, and teacher evaluations. The bill also prohibits the U.S. Department of Education from dictating to states what standards to adopt; what accountability systems to implement; how to identify and intervene in schools that need improvement; how to evaluate and reward outstanding teachers; or how to use federal, state, or local funds to improve student achievement in public schools.

Obama has instituted his own “reforms”

The No Child Left Behind Act sought to increase the accountability of public school systems and individual public schools. States had to implement a variety of tests in reading, math, and science; ensure that local school districts and schools make adequate yearly progress determinations based primarily on student performance on those assessments; and require teachers and aides to meet federally defined qualification requirements. The goal was for state policies to ensure that all public school students could reach a minimum level of achievement by the end of the 2013-14 school year. At the same time, states were to enforce a series of increasing consequences for schools and districts that failed to meet progress standards. As the law expired, widespread consensus emerged that while NCLB produced some positive results, particularly in providing better information and more transparency on student achievement, its unrealistic goals and one-size-fits-all federal mandates were unworkable.

After 2007, the Democrat majority never brought forward a reauthorization bill for consideration on the floor of the Senate. In that void, the Obama administration has put forward a series of its own modifications, using the waiver authority provided in NCLB to impose conditions on states concerning academic standards, measuring the progress of students toward those standards, state accountability systems, school improvement strategies, and teacher evaluation systems. These policies replaced the goals and accountability systems that Congress authorized under NCLB with a different set of goals and new methods of accountability not authorized by Congress. This has led to even more Washington control over elementary and secondary education in America.

In February 2009, the Obama stimulus bill funded the Race to the Top program. It provided $4.35 billion for competitive grants to be awarded to states to implement reforms specifically in four areas: enhancing standards and assessments; improving the collection and use of data; increasing teacher effectiveness and achieving equity in teacher distribution; and turning around struggling schools.

By September 2011, it was clear that most public schools would be classified as failing under NCLB’s requirements. The Obama administration created a “flexibility” package that fundamentally redesigned the law’s requirements. It offered waivers that exempted states from some of NCLB’s accountability and teacher qualification-related requirements conditioned upon states adopting new academic standards, accountability systems, and teacher evaluation systems. So far, 43 states have been granted an ESEA waiver, and two more have requests under review. The waivers run through the end of the 2014-15 school year. Together, these “reforms” have had the effect of bringing more control into Washington and away from state and local education officials.

Separately, since 2007, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers have been pursuing an effort to develop common standards for English/language arts and math in grades K-12. The effort was motivated by concerns over the variety in quality of academic standards across the country and the continuing failure of some schools to prepare students for global competition. This effort led to the development of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Adoption of the Common Core standards was optional and voluntary for states. However, the program had the support of the Obama administration and was encouraged by the Race to the Top grant competition. That competition required states to adopt “internationally-benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace” as a condition of receiving a grant, and it offered competitive preference points to states that were participating in a consortium of states that were developing and adopting a “common set of K-12 standards” that met those requirements.

The ESEA reauthorization bill reported out of the HELP Committee seeks to give control over academic standards back to the states. They will be responsible for choosing what academic standards to adopt, or for developing their own standards, aligned with certain general concepts. The bill prohibits the secretary of education from requiring a state to submit any elements of its academic standards to the federal government for review or approval in order to receive federal funding. The bill also prohibits the federal government from requiring or coercing states into adopting or maintaining any particular set of academic standards, including the Common Core standards. Additionally, the bill returns control for education to states and local school districts, including decisions for accountability, school improvement, and teacher evaluation.

Issue Tag: Education