If Congress Finally Overhauls NCLB, Are States Ready?

For the first time in more than a decade, the House and Senate have passed bills to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law and give states more freedom in education.
by | July 28, 2015

Congress is closer than it's been in years to rewriting the nation's signature education law. Both the House and the Senate passed bills this month that would give more flexibility to states to set their own policies. If they come up with a package that President Obama approves, it would be the first major federal education overhaul since President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law in 2002.

"At this point, I'm the most optimistic I've ever been," said Mary Kusler, director of government relations for the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union.

But most observers say the chances that the law will actually change are limited. The House just barely passed a bill on a 218-213 vote that would go much further than the Senate's version in reducing the federal role in education. The House bill would let states use the federal money designated for low-income populations to be used as vouchers for students to attend public schools of their choice -- an idea that Democrats oppose. It would also cap spending at current levels for six years.

"It could still happen, but it's complicated and requires a whole lot of compromise that nobody wants to make," said Andrew Rotherham, cofounder of Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting firm. "Any bill that satisfies House conservatives can't get through the Senate, and vice versa."

Still, there are many broad similarities between the bills. Annual testing for many grades would remain in place, but both chambers want schools to cut down on the number of standardized tests. Both bills would also give states more freedom to innovate and let them change the ways in which they evaluate teachers. The current federal method of evaluating schools, known as adequate yearly progress, will almost certainly go away in any final legislation that is passed.

"The contours of a deal that could pass both chambers and the president can sign are there," said Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, an education think tank.

If the feds really are ready to let go of the ropes a bit, states will again become "islands of innovation," predicts Doug Christensen, Nebraska's former education commissioner.

But assuming the law does change, experts don't expect most states to change everything. Instead, there would be heated debates between legislators, education officials and other policymakers about how best to proceed.

"You will see few, if any, dramatic changes immediately, but over time you would start to see changes as states take directions that are no longer heavily shaped by federal policy," said Frederick Hess, who directs education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Doug Christensen, Nebraska's former education commissioner: "States at this point in time are so fed up with the rigor of all the [federal] regulations that provide no space for innovation that they're willing to step up." (AP/Nati Harnik)

What might such changes look like? There are some clues. The original law expired in 2007 but Congress has failed to overhaul it, despite repeated attempts. Instead, since 2011, the Obama administration has granted waivers to more than 40 states, letting them test policies and programs that deviate from certain requirements of the law and allowing them to avoid some of NCLB's most serious penalties.

One experiment that's frequently cited is New Hampshire's competency-based assessment program, under which schools schools administer fewer standardized tests and also evaluate student learning by assessing projects and presentations. The program is being tried out in just a handful of districts but has garnered widespread support. The Council of Chief State School Officers encouraged Congress to approve a similar program, and Education Week described it as the "test case" for Education Secretary Arne Duncan's favored changes in accountability.

"We are intent on broadening the expectations of learning from the simple recitation of knowledge and facts ... while fostering work-study practices such as persistence and creativity," said Paul Leather, the deputy commissioner of education in New Hampshire, during a U.S. Senate hearing.

Other states are also changing education accountability measurements. In 2012, California limited the use of test scores in student and school evaluation and began tracking additional factors such as graduation rates. In Texas, a consortium of a couple dozen high schools are designing their own student assessment systems that also use multiple measures.

"States at this point in time are so fed up with the rigor of all the [federal] regulations that provide no space for innovation that they're willing to step up," said Christensen. "That wasn't the case 10 years ago."

Christensen is dubious, however, about the chances of Congress actually rewriting the law. Expecting Congress not to approve policy changes of any kind is a pretty safe bet nowadays. Many doubt huge changes to something as politically sensitive as education will happen this year or next.

Even if it does, the Obama administration has threatened to veto the House bill, saying it would go too far in limiting federal oversight of schools and divert funding from struggling schools. The White House has been more positive about the Senate bill but has expressed concern that it would also shift focus away from low-performing schools.

But widespread opposition to NCLB and standardized testing means Congress now has more momentum on this issue than it's had for over a decade.

"There will be huge responsibilities going to legislators, governors and school boards out of this law," said Kusler, the NEA lobbyist. "We're hoping this will bring decision-making back to where people know children's names."