The “Soft Bigotry of ‘It’s Optional’”–and What it Reveals about ESEA Politics, Policy, and Prospects

No matter the final outcome, one things is for certain: the new Congress has energized the debate over ESEA reauthorization. In the span of a weekend, numerous organizations articulated key principles for overhauling No Child Left Behind, including state education chiefscivil rights organizations, and the nation’s second largest teachers union, the AFT.

Now, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has stepped into the fray, in a significant policy speech this morning, marking the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s call to Congress to expand the federal role in education–which resulted in the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The big news item here is Secretary Duncan’s “line in the sand”–keeping the requirement for students to be tested statewide in reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. But what sets Duncan’s remarks apart from the statements released over the weekend isn’t testing, but how strongly he defended other potential federal responsibilities in a new ESEA, including requirements for states to:

  • adopt college- and career-ready standards;
  • continue producing annual information for families about their child’s learning, and the learning environment and results for their schools as a whole;
  • maintain school accountability systems that include consequences for schools where students don’t make academic progress; and
  • improve teacher preparation programs, and establish teacher evaluation systems that include evidence of students’ learning.

Duncan also highlighted ways the federal government could be even more active in promoting opportunity, such as resource accountability to ensure that low-income and minority kids are not shortchanged when it comes to course access, effective teachers, and fiscal resources; new support for innovation and research that helps schools continuously improve; and an expanded role within ESEA to help states deliver high-quality preschool.

In defending a robust federal role, Secretary Duncan even co-opted President Bush’s talking point by calling out “the soft bigotry of ‘it’s optional.’” That’s not just a great punch line. It also revealed much more about the politics of reauthorization, the confusing and convoluted federal education policy landscape, and the prospects of this particular effort to rewrite NCLB.

The politics of “it’s optional” must extend beyond testing. This will be the third NCLB reauthorization attempt since President Obama took office. And just like 2011 and 2013, issues of federalism are at the heart of the matter. The over-testing debate is actually indicative of a much larger questions. And increasingly, that question for Congress isn’t “What should the law mandate?” It’s “How many mandates can we get rid of?” For some Republicans, the answer seems to be “all of them.” For Democrats, it’s “some of them”–with a few new ideas for good measure. And for Duncan, it’s his “hard questions” of what’s optional in a new ESEA.

Yet from many of the statements coming from Republicans on the Hill, unions, advocacy groups, and even pundits like myself, you’d think the only issue on the table was testing. That the fate of all the other myriad provisions on Mike Petrilli’s ESEA reauthorization stoplight have been decided.

They haven’t. Not even close. And Secretary Duncan just reminded everyone that, in his book, accountability shouldn’t be optional. Neither should college- and career-ready standards adopted at the state-level, or increased early childhood opportunities.

Duncan’s speech should serve as a wake-up call to advocates who haven’t jumped on the “stop the national school board” bandwagon. Unless the field actively debates the federal role–in its entirety–the ESEA reauthorization bill we ultimately see may assume those debates are settled. In other words, the anti-testing push from Alexander, teachers’ unions, & Co. is part genuine desire to eliminate standardized testing and accountability linked to it… and part decoy. Testing isn’t just “sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools” as Duncan put it. It’s also sucking the oxygen out of a full ESEA reauthorization debate. By forcing Democrats to spend so much political capital in defense of testing, Alexander is betting that the Democrats can’t win much else, including teacher evaluation, school accountability with consequences, and resource equity.

The flawed policy of “it’s optional” cuts both ways. As my colleague Andy Smarick notes, the “soft bigotry of ‘it’s optional’” is a damning critique of Republicans set on backing away from the federal role in accountability. Yet, the same critique applies to some of the administration’s own policies. Secretary Duncan ended his speech calling on Congress to “dispense with No Child Left Behind, and give states more flexibility.” Flexibility implies options. And even though Duncan made it clear that there are some things that should not be optional, the administration’s waivers give states numerous options to deviate from federal law, especially in designing accountability systems.

The result of this flexibility is that federal accountability is at its weakest and most convoluted point in a decade. What appears to be a strong accountability system–targets that set the expectations for achievement gaps to close in half!–may be, in reality, meaningless. It’s a goal that no one is held accountable for.

Admittedly, part of the purpose behind waivers was to experiment with new approaches and test what works. But the experiment often appears to be out of control, with little evidence of positive results. And even if the Department starts to conduct more meaningful evaluations of waiver policy, it may just be too little, too late… and do nothing to clarify the larger argument around when options and flexibility in federal policy are acceptable to the administration, and when they are not.

The prospects: “it’s optional” sets the terms of a veto. With this speech, Secretary Duncan can no longer be considered a sideline player in the reauthorization debate. His message wasn’t “Look at all the places where we agree! I can’t wait to work with Congress.” This speech highlighted differences between his policy priorities and Congressional Republicans, pushing back on Alexander’s “national school board” by claiming equal opportunity as a “national responsibility.” And it also serves as a way to buck up members of his own party who may be feeling pressure from fellow Democrats to join in the “no national school board” chorus in the name of stopping standardized tests.

In other words, Duncan indicated he is willing to play the ESEA reauthorization game–but only under certain conditions. And of the paths Alexander can choose from to build a bipartisan coalition–the one that relies on union-friendly Democrats and anti-testing fervor, and the one that relies on more centrist Democrats, especially those on the HELP committee–Duncan is only playing on the latter. If Alexander reveals a draft bill this week that is, essentially, his 2013 proposal with an anti-testing veneer, I have a hard time expecting anything less than a brutal debate… and a veto at the end of the line.

One thought on “The “Soft Bigotry of ‘It’s Optional’”–and What it Reveals about ESEA Politics, Policy, and Prospects

  1. Bruce William Smith

    Listening to Secretary Duncan gave me the same impression that a veto is inevitable, if legislation worth passing is sent to the president — which is why congressional Republicans and their allies, on this issue, in other words the teachers’ unions and anti-testing parents, should be building a coalition broad enough to overcome that veto. Therefore the swing voters are likely to be Democrats whose convictions persuade them (rightly) that the federal government has been on an ineffective, divisive educational path for over a decade now, along with (likely relatively conservative) Democrats whose political futures depend upon union and parent support, instead of allegiance to an administration that will be out of office in two years and whose policies are unlikely to be in effect beyond 2017 in any case.

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