NCLB Replacement Bill Becomes Law

Published December 21, 2015

After months of wrangling and then inaction by Congress, President Barack Obama on December 10 signed into law what some observers deemed a “behind-closed-doors” rewrite of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The Senate had approved the measure on December 9, while the House version was passed on December 2.

Dragged Out for Months

An earlier version of the House measure, the Student Success Act (SSA), was passed in July solely with Republican votes. House Democrats denounced the measure and Obama objected to several of the bill’s stipulations, including a provision allowing Title I funds to follow a child to the school of his or her choice, known as portability. Obama also objected to a provision that would have returned to the states many accountability measures previously overseen by the federal government.

The Senate also passed in July its rewrite of NCLB, the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA). After 66 amendments to the original proposal, that measure passed with strong bipartisan support.

For months after the July votes, SSA and ECAA sat idle while their proponents awaited the creation of the conference committee needed to reconcile the bills into a composite piece of legislation both houses might approve and send to Obama for signing.

NCLB was itself a rewrite and renaming of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), first signed in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson and amended and reauthorized by every president since.

‘Huge Improvement’ Over Status Quo

Education policy experts at the Fordham Institute and American Enterprise Institute (AEI) generally characterized the NCLB rewrite as a “huge improvement over the status quo” of mandates and the Obama administration’s use of waivers, according to Frederick Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at AEI.

Hess says the Obama administration’s use of Race to the Top and waivers created “mischief” within the states, and he believes the new measure will remove Washington, DC from a position of dictating or influencing state accountability, school performance, and educational standards.

“For sure, conservatives didn’t get everything they wanted, [but] this is what winning looks like,” agreed Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “After seven years of lawless, Washington-knows-best-actions from the Obama administration, the new ESEA will return authority over education back to the states, where it belongs.”

Activists Continue Fight

Grassroots activists do not share their optimism. Through social media outlets and an October letter signed by more than 200 experts in 46 states, activists had requested that Congress stop the reauthorization process until after the 2016 election cycle. Federal expansion of early childhood programs and behavioral data collection are high on the list of activist complaints.

Dr. Karen Effrem, president of Education Liberty Watch and executive director of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition, said, “As a mother and a pediatrician, I am especially concerned about the expansion of the federal role in early childhood education. The new program imposes national early childhood standards, creating a ‘Baby Common Core’ situation with even more controversial standards than in K–12 [education]. In addition, many studies show that there is no evidence of long-term benefit of these programs, while there is significant evidence of academic and emotional harm.”

George Clowes, Ph.D., a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, which publishes School Reform News, says the time spent trying to pass a reauthorization bill would have been better spent educating parents about Title I, which provides financial assistance to school districts with high percentages of low-income families. “By educating parents about the idea of Title I portability, NCLB reauthorization deliberations would involve parents as well as education administrators,” Clowes said.

Glyn Wright, executive director of Eagle Forum, an organization highly critical of federal involvement in education, expressed worries about the transparency and speed of the congressional process.

“While the American people thought this would be a public debate, the final bill was put together behind closed doors by committee leaders and their staff,” Wright said. “[I]t doesn’t look like any of the reforms pushed by the grassroots [organizations] survived the process.”