Long-Awaited NCLB Overhaul Passes Senate, Reduces Federal Role in Education

by | December 10, 2015 AT 12:00 PM

By Alyson Klein

Almost 14 years ago, the U.S. House of Representatives voted by a huge, bipartisan margin to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, which put the federal government front and center when it came to how K-12 schools measured student performance and fixed struggling schools.

But last week, the House approved the Every Student Succeeds Act--the latest effort to update the main federal K-12 law--by an almost as overwhelming margin, 359-64.

The bill would scale back the federal role in education for the first time since the early 1980s, handing greater control over accountability and school improvement back to states. It also would keep in place the NCLB law's signature transparency requirements--including annual testing--and focus on helping traditionally overlooked groups of students and failing schools.

ESSA's political prospects appeared rosy from there on out. A similar piece of legislation passed with big bipartisan support in the Senate earlier this year, and the bill was expected to sail through that chamber in the coming days. And the White House has said it strongly supports the bill.

Setting the Template

The bill would direct states and districts to turn around their lowest-performing schools, schools with high dropout rates, and those where so called "subgroups" of students--like English-language learners, students in special education, and racial minorities--are struggling.

It would consolidate some 50 programs into a big block grant, and seriously curtail the U.S. education secretary's authority, while maintaining the Education Department's important enforcement protections, one sponsor says.

And, in a nod to concerns that the NCLB law placed too much emphasis on a single test score in rating schools, the measure calls for states to consider other factors in gauging school performance, such as school climate and teacher engagement.

Cross-Aisle Backslapping

The debate on the House floor Dec. 2 was full of bipartisan backslapping and a sense from lawmakers across the political spectrum that ESSA strikes the right balance between flexibility for states and civil rights protections.

"Parents, teachers, superintendents, and other education leaders have been telling us for years that the top-down approach to education isn't working," Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee and a co-author of the bill, said during the debate. "Yet some still believe that more programs, more mandates, and more bureaucrats will help get this right. Well, those days will soon be over."

For his part, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., another architect of the legislation, said the bill offered much-needed leeway, while maintaining the civil rights legacy of the underlying law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

"It maintains high standards for all children, and requires states to put into place locally designed evidence-based strategies that meet the unique needs of schools," he said.

The tone was a big departure from July's debate over a version of the bill backed only by Republicans that barely squeaked through. And a similar bill was pulled from consideration when it failed to garner sufficient support among Republicans back in February--in part because of opposition from the conservative Heritage Action fund. (Heritage also is not a fan of ESSA.)

Since then, however, the legislation was merged with a bipartisan Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash.

And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a sunny statement after the passage of a bill that many say would cut his successors off at the knees.

"We are encouraged that the bill passed by the House today would codify the vision that we have long advocated for giving a fair shot at a great education to every child in America--regardless of ZIP code," he said. "The bill that the House passed today reflects more of that vision than nearly any observer expected."

A broad coalition of civil rights, education redesign, and disability groups said in a statement last week that the legislation isn't exactly the bill that they would have written. But overall, those groups offered a measured endorsement.

For their part, state chiefs were jubilant--and clear that they won't drop the ball when it comes to ensuring progress for disadvantaged students.

"We welcome accountability," said Thomas Bice, Alabama's state superintendent, in a recent interview. "We believe in assessment. But one size doesn't fit all. What we need in Alabama may look different than what they need in Montana."

Teachers' unions and school administrators are also big fans of the bill.

Staff Writer Daarel Burnette II contributed to this report.

(c)2015 Education Week (Bethesda, Md.)