Williams: Lord, What Fools These Ed Reformers Be! A Requiem for the Every Student Succeeds Act

Setting: It is 2017. The curtains open on a smoking field pocked with craters, the fruits of education reform’s protracted civil war. Congress has just used the Congressional Review Act to eliminate the Obama administration’s education accountability regulations under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Not only does this erase these rules, it ensures that there will be no new clarification of ESSA’s vague text.

After weeks of debate over the wisdom of defending schools from bears with guns, education policy experts have just awoken to the strange, sad world surrounding them. Stage left, a curly-haired man stumbles to the edge of the crater and falls to his knees. He stands, tears at his hair, and throws down a glove.

O, education reform, if you have tears, prepare to shed them now. For here you lie, you yourself, rent asunder, shredded and shattered. And trust, too, is interred here with its brother, goodwill. Note well those wounds, those broken bodies. For you have done this. You have taken that old unity and scattered it to the winds.

And yet, pull them aside! Look! Mark the full measure of your sorrow!

Yes, indeed, your gasps reveal your groaning hearts. Here is federal accountability, too, run through with blows and pricks from its conservative friends. Yes! These scars! O scarlet runs from changed lovers! For they did love accountability once, they clasped it dear and made it known that all federal dollars should flow to support quality opportunities.

But now, their hearts have run cold, and accountability lies here, laid low by unaccountable, false friends. Grievously have they dispatched it — no banishment, no probation, no penalty but the maximum. For they have used this Congressional Review Act to put it beyond retrieval.

I shall not make the old corpse speak, nor shall I shake forth each detail of its tired tale, but spare me the skeleton. These honorable Republican men and women found themselves ill at ease with No Child Left Behind, the legacy law of their tribal hero. “It does claim overmuch for itself,” they shouted. “It goes beyond its bounds. Leave districts their ancestral rights.” The federal accountability they had raised through the arts of their own hands became, through some strange alchemy, a spectre haunting schoolmasters in their fields.

You all have seen that new-risen spectre of federal accountability for what it is and has been (page 149). And yet the right demanded a compromising rescue from the reforms it once authored. It called its kin to a parley and took great pains to flay accountability to a suitable emaciation. This gave conservatives their ESSA, their cloudy mist of nuance and promises, their poison’d meal for what remained of accountability. Speak plain: they had good as ended it then, a fatal crusade against their own dear creation.

Yet still they left it living, a few flickering requirements. If states advanced in honors to more thoroughly command their schools, there was yet some limp check upon their hands, a faltering federal demand that states yet do something when these schools fell short of their most valuable tasks. There was yet a rule, one small tie to stay the most egregious abuses.

This, too, proved too much. This small, unconquered creation of their own yet tormented these transformed men and women. I know not their private causes. But they loudly proclaim to the world that they could do no other, that Arne Duncan held accountability too precious, that, in his embrace, it weighed too heavily upon the states. His steadfastness were a grievous fault, then, for now federal accountability lies here cold and alone, abandoned by those of the right. Certain, while it lived, accountability set its shoulder to the task and drove forth student achievement.

But I come not to praise the dead. The right says it knows the Right, and surely these of the right are honorable men and women.

Lo, but they say reform was misguided, that it lost itself in pursuing college for all, in making ineffective schools change, in hauling forth transparent student achievement data for the public’s viewing. They have maintained — those who loved it once, those angels of reform — that all that was once federal must now become state. Now, these conservative reformers tell us, there is a tide in the flood of education decisions, which, when taken at the state level, leads on to fortune.

Yet lead these choices from Washington, they say, and all is lost.

Wail if you must, reformers. But know yourselves well. For this fresh calamity comes not from beyond, but as fruit of your own machinations. When this law first came, when this fresh legal haze made arrival (in 2015), I spoke out to you over and again, not to dispute what others said — that No Child Left Behind was broken, that federal education policy needed improvement … for these were indeed true — but to speak what I did know: that

the details of ESSA itself are contested turf. There is disagreement on the Hill and throughout the Beltway education policy establishment as to just what ESSA actually does. Liberals who support it are insisting that it leaves considerable authority to any future secretary of education who wants to push states hard on educational equity. Conservatives are confident that it leaves no such room for a strong federal role. This lack of clarity is telling. It suggests that ESSA is less about replacing reform policies with new, promising ideas than it is about tracking changing political currents. There isn’t bipartisan agreement that reform is wrong so much as a desire for some changes without a credible new theory of action … [Now, reformers will] face increased criticism and adverse national political currents.

I come not, friends, to pierce your hearts, nor do I beg you hang your heads. I come to bury accountability, to join you in the entombment you began many months ere now. You have compromised with one another and bargained away your core, you have abandoned your work to those who meant it ill.

Still, now, even now, I hear lost reformers, those happy mutineers calling to you from over the hills. They ask you to unwind time’s eternal lines, to forget what you have seen here today. “Come,” their voices call, “let us work together again to do what’s best for children. Think not that we have slain federal accountability. As accountability served our political purposes, we shed tears and struck blows on its behalf. As accountability’s defense became politically uncomfortable, we abandoned it. Who is here so brave that she would hold fast to a position on principles, on effectiveness?”

These right-eous conservatives continue, with honeyed tongues, “Oh, but fear not. Trust us again. Please don’t hold this against us when it comes to school choice policies! Let us pass another law, one emptied of content through compromise.”

Cast your eyes forth once more, you reformers. For those policies are now all that remains of your realm. What, are those tears after all? Banish them! For these, your colleagues, those you have trusted with your work, they are honorable men and women.

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