With NCLB Overhaul, Congress Poised to Give States More Education Control

by | December 3, 2015 AT 12:00 PM

By John Fritze

After nearly a decade of wrangling over the role the federal government should have in education, Congress is poised to approve an overhaul of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law that would give more authority to Maryland and other states to address their failing schools.

The measure, which won approval in the Republican-led House of Representatives late Wednesday, would ease federally imposed achievement goals that critics say relied too much on standardized tests and were unrealistic for struggling public school systems such as Baltimore's.

Although previous efforts to reauthorize the education law collapsed under deep disagreements about funding and federal oversight, the latest iteration -- called the "Every Student Succeeds Act" -- appears to be zooming toward a final vote in the Senate as early as next week.

President Barack Obama, who for years has called for a rewrite of the education law, "strongly supports" the measure, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday.

The legislation enjoys bipartisan support.

"This bill is about investment in the future, investment in children," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House. "The impact of our investments in education will be felt long after we are gone."

But while some of the nation's most prominent education lobby groups are backing the bill, there is apprehension from others that lawmakers might have overreacted to political pressure to limit the role of the federal government -- considerably weakening Washington's ability to step in if a state fails to address its most troubled schools.

"I'm concerned that states, with a combination of state politics and inertia, will not ... do aggressive interventions for students in struggling schools," said Chad Aldeman, a former federal education official who is now with Bellwether Education Partners, a Boston-based consulting firm.

No Child Left Behind was a landmark measure supported by President George W. Bush and negotiated by Republican Rep. John Boehner, then a little-known Ohio lawmaker who would later become House speaker, and the late Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

The measure imposed tough sanctions on schools that failed to meet benchmarks, leading eventually to a requirement to restructure.

But many viewed the goals as impractical, and the repercussions self-defeating. Thousands of schools across the country -- including one-third of Maryland's schools -- were found to be failing.

When the law expired in 2007, lawmakers could not agree to change it.

The Obama administration, relying on an obscure provision of the law, created a process in 2011 to grant waivers to states that demonstrated they could set up their own accountability program. Most states, including Maryland, were granted a waiver.

Under the bill now in Congress, students in Maryland and other states would still be required to take annual tests in reading and math in third through eighth grades, and once in high school.

But what happens with those test results -- and how low-performing schools will be addressed -- is less clear. It would be up to each state to decide.

Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, praised Congress for moving forward with a bill, and noted that the legislation "appears to provide some important flexibility for states."

But Reinhard said it is too early to determine exactly how the measure would affect schools in the state.

Maryland would be able to design a new accountability system for schools and teachers, which might rely less on standardized tests and instead include other metrics, such as the availability of prekindergarten programs or college-level courses.

Depending on how the state approached the legislation, lawmakers in the General Assembly could also play a role.

One provision of the new law that is not expected to change significantly is federal Title I aid, directed to schools with a high percentage of poor children. State and local officials credited Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, a top negotiator of the final version of the bill, with blocking efforts to adjust that funding.

Edie House-Foster, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore City school system, said the funding was a top concern.

Mikulski's office estimated that proposals to change the formula would have resulted in a $40 million reduction in aid to Maryland, including a roughly $6 million cut for Baltimore schools. The state received about $196 million in Title I money this year, including $48.7 million for Baltimore City and $24.7 million to Baltimore County.

Mikulski, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she wanted to ensure that "Maryland families have public schools they can count on."

Other Maryland lawmakers also won provisions. Hoyer, for instance, secured funding for a nationwide community school program that mirrors the Maryland Judy Centers established in dozens of schools around the state. The centers are named after Hoyer's late wife, Judith P. Hoyer, a coordinating supervisor of early childhood education in Prince George's County.

The House approved the legislation Wednesday on a 359-64 vote, with only Republicans opposing. Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's sole Republican in Congress, was the only member of the state's delegation to vote against it.

Teachers unions -- which have long lobbied for less restrictive requirements -- cheered the measure. Under Maryland's waiver, the state relies on annual tests as part of its teacher evaluation process. The bill would let states discontinue that practice, a move unions support.

"It allows Maryland the flexibility to address the specific challenges facing our schools and students in ways that are unique to Maryland," said Sean Johnson, government relations director for the Maryland State Education Association. "It's not a one-size-fits-all approach."

Civil rights groups have closely followed the bill's drafting with an eye toward how it treats disadvantaged and minority children. The original 1965 federal education law was pitched by Lyndon B. Johnson's administration as an effort to ensure all children had equal access to quality education.

The Washington-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and several other groups involved with the effort, offered tepid support for the proposal this week. They said they didn't get every provision they had sought but that the compromise is an improvement over the current system.

Broadly, civil rights groups are pleased states would continue to administer annual assessment tests, that they will be required to address low-performing schools, and that they will have to pay closer attention to certain groups -- special-education students, for example -- if they are not performing as well as the school as a whole.

But because states would now have the bulk of the responsibility to set goals and decide how to respond if those goals are not met, there is apprehension among the groups that some states might be less thorough in that effort than others.

It would also complicate the work of civil rights leaders, who would spend more effort monitoring progress state by state rather than focusing on Washington.

"I'm not sure that the civil rights community would, as a whole, have said, 'Let's let this bill move forward,'" said Nancy M. Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "But we're in an environment where we have ... the remnants of No Child Left Behind, and this bill is definitely an improvement."

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