Tag Archives: ESEA at 50

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. Continue reading

NCLB Reauthorization Lies Through the Center, But Can It Hold?

Like clockwork, every two years, Congress decides it’s time to debate a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And the alarm is set to go off again, with NCLB at the top of the legislative agenda for the incoming Republican chairmen of the House and Senate education committees. After sessions marked by record-breaking inefficiency, could the 114th Congress be the one that finally gets an NCLB rewrite done?

It would be fitting, after all, with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act turning 50 next year. And nobody seems to care for Secretary Duncan’s NCLB waiver strategy in lieu of a permanent reauthorization. Plus, with the ascendance of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and a changing of the guard on the left after the retirements of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), it’s possible that new leadership could move past the partisanship that marred the last attempt to rewrite the law in 2013.

But which direction will they move? If the end goal is a bipartisan reauthorization, there are actually two ways GOP leadership could attempt to piece together a coalition:

  1. Bring together the wings. One of the most unusual developments over the past year or so is the convergence of the extremes of both parties. Staunch conservatives on the right, incensed by what they consider to be egregious federal overreach in regards to Common Core, teacher evaluations, and school turnarounds, have found common ground with unions and progressives on the left, fed up with what they see as out-of-control standardized testing and its undue influence on high-stakes accountability for schools and teachers. The solution, for both, is the same: gut NCLB’s signature standards, testing, and accountability provisions, and devolve most authority back to states and local districts. In other words, federal education policy circa 1994.

The problem is, of course, that standards-based accountability–or lack thereof–is one of the only things this motley bipartisan coalition could agree on. The right would like Title I portability, or even vouchers, in the law, or to expand the use of block grants to trim categorical programs. But if there’s one thing progressives and the unions won’t tolerate it’s less money for public education, or the loss of dedicated funding streams for certain programs (arts education, afterschool programs, English language learners, incarcerated youth, etc.). With those policy preferences, the wings of both parties are unlikely to coalesce around a complete NCLB reauthorization–there are just too many roadblocks over funding, choice, and other provisions. And even if they can come to some agreement on funding (say, a large increase in Title I formula funds in exchange for converting most of it to block grants), it’s even less likely that President Obama would sign such a bill if it’s main selling feature is “ending the Obama administration’s National School Board.” Continue reading