There isn’t much for conservatives to love in the policies put forward in the proposed rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization currently moving through Congress.
Proponents of the No Child Left Behind rewrite have argued that the proposal would prohibit the education secretary from encouraging states to adopt Common Core and would otherwise rein in the Department of Education.
On the Common Core question, states have already adopted the national standards and tests, and it is now up to states to fully exit Common Core. Moreover, there were already prohibitions in three federal laws against the federal government being involved in curriculum-setting. It is unlikely that yet another prohibition will change much.
In regard to the proposal’s potential for somehow restraining the Department of Education, we should first consider the amount of federal direction that is retained.
Although the proposal would end Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) mandates, which required that all students in all states make “adequate” annual progress toward universal proficiency in math and reading or have the state risk federal sanctions, it retains the annual testing requirement that students be tested every year in grades three through eight and again in high school.
As was recently reported, states promulgate their own tests to assess students in advance of the federally mandated state tests, resulting in students in large districts taking an average of 112 mandated standardized tests by the time they graduate. The proposal would keep that structure in place. Regardless of what one thinks about the relative merits of standardized testing, federally mandated annual testing has a real effect on local school policy.
We should also consider the requirements included in the proposal for the new “state-based” accountability plans. Although less prescriptive than AYP, the proposal is specific about the types and the proportion of accountability options that must be included. Reports suggest that about 51 percent of a state’s accountability plan must be based on quantitative measures such as graduation rates and performance on state tests, and the other 49 percent may be based on other more subjective measures, yet undefined. Under the new proposal, states would also be required to:
- Intervene in the lowest performing 5 percent of schools;
- Have school-level interventions in schools in which subgroups of students perform poorly;
- Intervene in schools in which fewer than two-thirds of students graduate.
As The New York Times reported, “officials from the White House insisted that states be required to intervene in the bottom 5 percent of schools based on a range of metrics including test scores, graduation rates and other measures of performance.”
The proposal is unlikely to meaningfully reduce federal intervention in education. Here are five additional policy shortcomings:
- States do not have the option to opt out of the law (currently known as No Child Left Behind). Over the summer, the House and Senate considered an amendment based on the APLUS proposal, which would allow states to opt out completely and put dollars toward any lawful education purpose under state law. The amendment received the support of over 80 percent of conservatives in the House and Senate and yet is not part of this proposal.
- The agreement would also cement a new pre-school program at the Department of Health and Human Services (which currently manages Head Start). Some funding had been appropriated for the pre-school program for the past two years. But now ESEA would codify the new $250-million federal pre-school program, creating mission creep in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Additionally, this move would continue the trend of growth in federal programs affecting the youngest Americans at a time when we have more empirical evidence than ever on the shortcomings of government pre-school programs.
- The policy expands rural education programs and after-school programs and creates a new version of the Investing in Innovation program (although the I3 program as it currently stands is eliminated).
- There is no option for Title I portability. Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has failed to meet its objective of improving in the most effective way possible the educational outcomes for children from disadvantaged families. Conservatives had worked to transform Title I in a way that would allow states the flexibility to make Title I dollars “portable,” so that the dollars follow the child to the school or education option of the parents’ choosing. That option has been left on the cutting room floor.
- It appears that not a dime of spending would be cut. Federal per-pupil expenditures have more than doubled in real terms since the 1980s, while student academic achievement has remained flat.
The proposal would maintain high levels of spending and dozens of ineffective programs, while at the same time creating even more new programs. The absence of any Title I funding portability fails to empower low-income parents. The proposal is likely to maintain significant intervention by the Department of Education in local schools. There is not much for conservatives to love.