Over the weekend, the administration released its “blueprint” for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The blueprint provides the administration’s vision for reauthorizing ESEA, in its current iteration known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), due for reauthorization since 2007. The plan to tackle the reauthorization of NCLB marks the most significant undertaking in the realm of federal education policy since the law was originally crafted in 2001. For the education policy world, this is huge; for the Obama administration, this offers a prime opportunity to reshape the course of American education.

Despite the historic opportunity, the administration’s blueprint offers what will likely be more lip service to reform and flexibility than actual freedom from federal red tape, which most states desperately need to improve academic achievement during a time of fiscal duress. States like Florida have shown that the real promise of educational success lies at the state level. However, there are some major changes afoot if the law is reauthorized in accordance with the blueprint. Among other changes, the new federal plan would require the following:

  • Adequate yearly progress (AYP) would no longer be used to measure the achievement of schools and districts. Instead, states would have to show that students are “college and career ready” by the year 2020, with the goal of having the United States rank first in the world in the percentage of students who complete college.
  • While the NCLB 2014 proficiency deadline would be effectively eliminated, states would be expected to adopt new college and career ready standards to meet the 2020 “college and career ready” goal. States would be expected to set proficiency benchmarks against their new standards.
  • The administration’s proposal aims to provide more latitude in how states intercede in failing schools and includes a provision for differentiating consequences for low-performing schools. States would choose one of four turnaround models to improve what the administration has deemed “Challenge schools” – those schools that are among the lowest 5 percent of performers.
  • Schools that are deemed among the next lowest 5 percent would be placed on a “warning list”. States would be required to improve schools placed on the warning list, but would not be required to use one of the administration-prescribed turnaround models.
  • Under the new blueprint, states would be required to take over a school’s Title I funding if a school has not worked toward successfully closing existing achievement gaps after three years time.
  • The new blueprint calls for increased funding equalization among schools, and will move toward “comparability in resources between high- and low-poverty schools.” Further, the administration writes that “over time, districts will be required to ensure that their high-poverty schools receive state and local funding levels (for personnel and relevant nonpersonnel expenditures) comparable to those received by their low-poverty schools.” Equalizing inputs has long been a goal of liberal education policy, though increased spending has not been shown to correlate with increased achievement.
  • The blueprint calls for not only funding equalization but also equalizing teaching resources, noting that “states will also be required to develop meaningful plans to ensure the equitable distribution of teachers and principals that receive at least an ‘effective’ rating.”

While these are major changes to the current law, there are a few requirements that would not change. For instance, states will still be required to tests students annually in grades 3 – 8 and once again in high school, as currently required by NCLB. However, new federal funding will be provided to help states craft assessments that are aligned with new college and career-ready standards.

Many of these reforms effectively reset the clock on accountability. And the common standards language leaves reason to believe that states will still be susceptible to the perverse incentives created by NCLB – namely watering down their tests to meet the new 2020 deadline.

The administration’s promise of increased flexibility for states is admirable, but even the blueprint – let alone what a full-blown reauthorization bill would contain – increases the federal role in education and stands to further bind the hands of already overburdened states. The primary shackles will come with the strong incentives to adopt common standards, and indeed, the blueprint refers to the newly drafted standards numerous times. The administration will give funding priority “to states that have adopted common, state-developed, college- and career-ready standards.” The blueprint builds on Race to the Top by incentivizing states to adopt reforms that improve student achievement, which the administration believes include common standards.

The National Governor’s Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and the administration have contended for more than a year that the common core standards being drafted by the NGA and CCSSO are voluntary. To date, 48 states have signed on to adopt the common standards even though a final draft is not expected to be unveiled until April. While the $4.35 billion Race to the Top grants created a strong incentive for states to sign on to the standards, two states, Texas and Alaska, have so far chosen not to adopt the “college and career ready” standards for fear of increased federal intervention and red tape. The administration went a step further last month, suggesting that Title I funding – money for low-income school districts – could be contingent on the adoption of common standards. The ESEA reauthorization blueprint leaves an even greater impression that the choice to adopt common standards is becoming less and less voluntary. The blueprint states:

Following the lead of the nation’s governors, we’re calling on all states to develop and adopt standards in English language arts and mathematics that build toward college- and career-readiness by the time students graduate from high school… States may either choose to upgrade their existing standards, working with their 4-year public university system to certify that mastery of the standards ensures that a student will not need to take remedial coursework upon admission to a postsecondary institution in the system; or work with other states to create state-developed common standards that build toward college- and career- readiness.

The blueprint tightly ties some funding to the adoption of common standards and corresponding assessments:

States will receive formula grants to develop and implement high-quality assessments aligned with college- and career-ready standards in English language arts and mathematics that accurately measure student academic achievement and growth, provide feedback to support and improve teaching, and measure school success and progress…Beginning in 2015, formula funds will be available only to states that are implementing assessments based on college- and career-ready standards that are common to a significant number of states.

While the administration’s blueprint for ESEA reauthorization claims to increase flexibility for states, strong language about the adoption of common standards and tests, equalizing funding for schools and the distribution of effective teachers suggests that states will see an increase in federal red tape. The blueprint’s various references to the administration “providing a cradle through college and career continuum” suggest that flexibility will be lost for states and students alike.

There are cheerleaders for the new reforms. Writing that the blueprint is tight on means and represents a dramatic change in the federal role in education, Fordham claims the new federal role is “one that would be more targeted, less prescriptive, and use a lighter touch on the vast majority of America’s schools.”

But one of the most glaring indications that the proposal will further enshrine the Washington-directed status quo rather than empowering parents is the elimination of supplemental education services (SES) for students in failing public schools. Education Week writes:

In an important policy shift, schools that failed to meet achievement targets would not be mandated to provide school choice or supplemental educational services, known as SES. Mr. Duncan had already signaled that the tutoring and public-school-choice provisions under NCLB were not acceptable to him…The proposal could meet with opposition in Congress, particularly among Republicans.

“It’s disappointing to see [tutoring] and school choice removed from the parental toolbox, particularly because it appears the focus is shifting to the needs of schools rather than the needs of students,” said Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.

It will be an unfortunate turn for the administration to further consolidate federal power over education while weakening parents’ options. Early signs – moving toward common standards and funding equalization among the most glaring – indicate that federal control would increase as a result of this reauthorization proposal.