Opinion

Williams: Why Progressives Should Fear, Conservatives Should Hate and Obama Should Veto the NCLB Rewrite

By Conor Williams | November 29, 2015

Photo: Getty Images
Update, Dec. 2: The House of Representatives passed the Every Student Succeeds Act by a wide margin (359-64), voting to replace No Child Left Behind. Read our coverage of the House debate here. The Senate is expected to take up the bill Dec. 8 or 9. 
Given that K–12 education has occupied all of 30 to 60 seconds of discussion in the 2016 presidential debates so far it’s probably no surprise that big progress on federal education policy isn’t getting a whole lot of media attention. Like it or not, K–12 education isn’t a top-tier political issue like, say, taxes, reproductive rights, gun policy, and so forth. (No matter what some swing-state polls might say.)
So while public debates over refugee policy and military intervention in the Middle East have been sucking up all the oxygen, Congress moved a little closer to replacing No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Specifically, they announced on Nov. 18 that they’d found a compromise framework that would reduce the federal role in public education without reducing it too much, and give states more room to decide which districts and schools they should focus on for improvement. Even though the framework was approved before Thanksgiving, there’s a lot yet to be done as far as clarifying specifically what the bill does. The debate is set to move to the House later this week.
As far as I can tell, it’s a brilliant piece of political posturing … that doesn’t seem likely to provide educational opportunity for underserved kids.
First, here’s a quick reminder of what the law replaces: under NCLB, schools where low percentages of students scored proficient on math and reading assessments receive targeted, escalating interventions to improve students’ scores. The law provides a list of interventions and mandates that states can choose from in correcting these schools’ trajectories.
Now here’s an outline of what the new framework would reportedly do: each state would develop its own accountability system to meaningfully measure, and differentiate between, schools. Each state’s accountability system must incorporate students’ math and reading achievement, though states have considerable sway in determining how much weight these two measures have. States may also incorporate other measures in determining whether schools are succeeding, such as attendance, student engagement, school climate measures, teacher engagement, participation in extracurriculars, and so on.
There’s more! Schools that finish in the bottom 5 percent of their particular system for no more than three years must be identified for improvement. Same goes for dropout factories (schools with a graduation rate below 67 percent). After schools are identified, the state must make their district do something about it, though the framework doesn’t appear to offer any details on just what. Schools with any subgroup of students performing as poorly for a state-determined number of years (1? 4? 13? 25?) as the bottom 5 percent of schools are also identified as in need of improvement. The subgroups include African-American, Hispanic, English Learner, low-income, and/or Asian-American and Pacific Islander students.
So: if a school’s students from any of these groups is performing as poorly as the bottom 5 percent of all schools in the state, the state would then have to make those schools do something new to improve their performance.
Clear? No? Let me put it in other words. A given school has to change how it's operating if the district owns no hotels on Park Place or Boardwalk and its state’s superintendent of schools lost an arm-wrestling match with the U.S. Secretary of Education on a Wednesday when the wind was blowing south and the Cubs still haven't won the World Series. If the Cubs do break their curse, the arm-wrestling then takes place over a fire pit on a day when the wind is blowing west, unless the district lands on Free Parking first, in which case the evaluation is called on account of repeated traveling violations in the paint. Standardized tests are then suspended for all schools in the state that begin with a ‘j’ or are named for former Confederate generals. As long as the shuttlecock hasn’t yet crossed the line of scrimmage.
Makes sense now, right?
What do you mean, “no?”
It's a clear system that serves the political needs of most members of Congress and protects a variety of special interest groups. It combines a thin veneer of civil rights equity with excruciating complexity and uncertain accountability. It takes a relatively simple federal accountability system, removes the teeth, and layers on a bunch of vague responsibilities for states.
What's not to understand? What's not to like? It’s a compromise in a Congress that generally can’t accomplish anything!
But seriously: Conservatives should oppose this bill. They should protest its bizarre, unclear federal accountability mandates. The new rules would require states to design accountability systems that cover much wider terrain than No Child Left Behind’s relatively simple mandates. It would put them under uncertain pressure from the Department of Education, since it leaves much up to federal interpretation. States would be stuck in a dance with whoever happens to be running the Department at any given moment.
Progressives should also run from this bill as if it were a Ted Cruz creation. Because there’s no reason to believe that states are up to this task. In fact, is there any reason to believe that states are willing to design accountability systems that actually require them to focus on schools with lots of underprivileged and underserved kids? Ha. If this were a debate over clean water protections, voting rights protections, or most other policy issues, progressives would line up to yell about how states can’t be trusted to do the right thing without strong federal oversight.
Why are some (so-called) progressives ready to give states more flexibility around educational equity?
And look, should Congress pass a bill based on this framework, President Obama should veto it. This framework gives state and local officials huge latitude (“acres of new running room,” wrote EdWeek’s Alyson Klein) to ignore or support their underserved students. Historically, this means that states ignore these kids, particularly students of color.
Shoot, Obama should veto it with a neon Sharpie, rip it up, and hold a press conference where he lights the shreds on fire.
“But hey!” you’re thinking, “that’s how you know it’s a good compromise. No one gets what they want! No one likes it!” Yeah, that’s probably true. But, hungry as we might be to get something — anything — done in Congress, we shouldn’t fetishize compromises. Just because a compromise satisfies various political needs (“rebuking” Arne Duncan — whatever that means — or weakening the federal role in education policy, or etc) doesn’t mean that it’s good, workable policy.
Just because something is a compromise doesn’t mean that it will do good things for children.
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