“It’s like Christmas Day,” exclaimed Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union. García was referring to passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was signed into law by President Barack Obama—who similarly referred to the new law as a “Christmas miracle”—earlier Thursday.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate passed the measure, which reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the most recent iteration of which was No Child Left Behind. The Every Student Succeeds Act passed the Senate by a margin of 85-12 and in the U.S. House by a vote of 359-64 in late November (this included every Democrat who voted in both the House and Senate).

According to Politico, “victory certainly didn’t just land in the laps of union leaders. The National Education Alliance and the American Federation of Teachers are on track to spend $3.7 million combined lobbying Capitol Hill before 2015 is done.

“The National Education Alliance calculates that it has held 2,300 face-to-face meetings with lawmakers this year. Members have sent 255,000 emails to Capitol Hill and made 23,500 phone calls, according to NEA’s calculations.”

Politico goes on to report:

In February, it spent $500,000 on an ad buy targeting Senate HELP Committee members’ districts, calling on them to replace the law… the AFT calculates it had 200 in-person meetings with lawmakers, made 125,000 phone calls and submitted more than 20,000 online comments to members of Congress.

The proposal’s elimination of Adequately Yearly Progress (AYP) has rightly drawn the support of the vast majority of analysts and education stakeholders. AYP was the overly prescriptive federal mandate that undergirded the foundation of No Child Left Behind; it required that all students achieve proficiency by the 2014-15 school year or have a state risk federal sanctions. In addition to eliminating AYP, the new law also eliminates the so-called “highly qualified teacher” provision, which established federal credentialing requirements for teachers. Yet the law’s policy bright spots end there, and they are overwhelmed by the prescriptions, programs, and spending that remain.

Major federal prescription remains, particularly around testing:

  • States must continue to administer annual tests and report results publicly. Just as with No Child Left Behind, states must test all children in grades 3 through 8 annually and at least once in high school, and as with No Child Left Behind, results must be disaggregated by subgroup.
  • Just as with No Child Left Behind, the Every Student Succeeds Act mandates that states have test participation rates of at least 95 percent of students.
  • States must administer tests that include at least three achievement levels and, as with current practice, must set cut scores that are “challenging.” Tests must align to state standards and now must provide “coherent and timely” information about student outcomes and proportion at grade level.
  • In addition to the mandated annual tests, new state “accountability” plans must include reports on interim progress, which likely means interim testing on the part of states.

Although the law consolidates some programs, it does not eliminate any program funding, it and creates several new significant federal programs, including:

  • Newly codified $250-million annual federal preschool program, to be housed at Health and Human Services and jointly administered by the Department of Education.
  • New family engagement centers program, new STEM program, Master Teacher Corps, and civics professional development programs.
  • Reconstituted Part A, Title IV section into the Student Support and Academic Enrichment program, which would authorize spending at $1.6 billion annually through 2020. That authorized amount comes in addition to the authorized $1.1 billion in Part B, which funds the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program.

And most notably, perhaps, are all of the missed opportunities to advance conservative policy, and policy that would actually empower parents:

  • No option for states to make their Title I funding (the bulk of federal funding for low-income districts) portable, to follow students to a school of choice.
  • No reduction in the accumulation of spending.
  • Limited program consolidation.
  • No option for states to completely opt out of the law through a provision known as APLUS is included. The amendment received 195 votes in the House and 44 votes in the Senate (amounting to 80 percent of Republicans in Congress) yet is not part of this proposal.

Although it may be an early Christmas present for the president and the teachers unions, for those interested in empowering parents and genuinely reducing federal intervention in education, the Every Student Succeeds Act leaves much to be desired.