No Child Left Behind Rewrite Progresses Slowly

Published July 6, 2015

Congressional leaders are attempting to pass a reworked bill reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). 

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELPC), released a draft bill in early January. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of HELPC, soon joined Alexander in further rewriting the controversial education act.

Key participants in the drafting included Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), according to a Republican aide who asked not to be named.

The Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 (ECAA) would reauthorize ESEA and “continue annual measurements of academic progress of students while restoring to states, school districts, classroom teachers, and parents the responsibility of deciding what to do about improving student achievement, which should produce fewer tests and more appropriate ways to measure student achievement,” said the aide. “[This is the] most effective path to advance higher state standards, better teaching, and real accountability.”

Baseline Changes

The proposal would end some of the strict federal accountability mandates required under No Child Left Behind, returning some responsibilities to the states. It would also increase federal funds directed to low-performing schools and prohibit the government from mandating or incentivizing states to adopt particular standards, including Common Core.

ECAA would also create a single Charter Schools Program in which states, public or private nonprofits, and charter management organizations would compete for funding in separate grant categories.

“The Senate proposal moves in a better direction than we’ve been in with NCLB,” said Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute. “It is less prescriptive, … [moving] away from punishments [based on] yearly progress and dictating how state accountability will work.”

Within 90 days of submission, the secretary of education would have to decide on whether to approve a state’s plan outlining how school districts would meet ECAA requirements. States have the right to a hearing and can resubmit a plan for review.

Addressing Testing Controversy

The proposal would keep in effect the reading, math, and science tests established in 2001.

“We found that no issue stirred as much controversy as testing,” Alexander said during a Senate hearing in April. “Our proposal maintains the reading, math, and science tests and disaggregated reporting requirements established in 2001. The more we studied the problem, the issue seems not to be the 17 federal tests. A third grader, for example, is required to take only one test in math and one in reading during one year. Denver Public Schools superintendent Tom Boasberg testified before the committee that he’d like to keep math and reading tests to a total of four hours a year—that’s about what they are right now in Denver, according to our calculations.

“Instead, the problem is the federal government’s accountability system for what to do about the results of these tests,” Alexander said. “This federal accountability system has greatly contributed to the exploding number of state and local tests.”

McCluskey says ECAA would still make for too much federal influence over education.

“If you compared this to … what the federal government should be doing in education, we’re nowhere near where we need to be,” McCluskey said.

“The federalism is better in the new proposal,” said Lisa Snell, director of education at the Reason Foundation. “It is significant that states will not have to justify many of the inputs [as currently] required, like ‘adequate yearly progress’ and ‘highly qualified teachers’ that generated so many Title I compliance officers. The law … lets states decide on individual testing and accountability programs and sanctions rather than pushing a one-size-fits all structure.”

Funding Concerns

Snell and McCluskey both say ESEA is not the place to increase funding of early childhood education, as the bill’s language suggests.

“Early education should not be addressed through ESEA,” Snell said. “There are myriad other early education funding streams from the federal government, from Head Start to the Early Education block grant. They should not be duplicated in K–12 funding. Any changes, expansions, or improvements to early education should be done by first streamlining and coalescing the existing federal early education programs.”

Snell also says Title I funding given to school districts to improve student achievement in low-income areas has been ineffective. 

“There are still severe issues with the funding formula itself and the unintended inequities between Title I schools and other district schools that the current comparability rules allow,” Snell said. “Until the money is attached to students [instead of being allocated directly to schools], districts will still be able to game the formula through staff placement, and there is no guarantee that staffing will be distributed in an equitable way by local districts. The bottom line is that these new efforts and spending from the federal government will likely have very little impact on the student achievement outcomes for disadvantaged students.

“To date, there is almost no empirical evidence showing that Title I has actually made a difference for disadvantaged students,” Snell said. “Without using Title I to actually change the current education delivery system by allowing more school choice and more portable funding and competition between schools for disadvantaged students, it is unlikely that the next reauthorization of ESEA will lead to strong improvement for disadvantaged students.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.

Image by AMSF2011.