The No Child Left Behind Act, once hailed as the most important education law in our nation's history, has been left behind, abandoned by bipartisan Congressional passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act which President Obama signed Thursday.
The new law answers the feverish educational prayers of most liberals and conservatives. But properly understood, the legislation is enough to give bipartisanship a bad name. It is a massive retreat from our national interest and commitment to equal educational opportunity, especially for poor and minority children.
NCLB's enactment in 2001 was a magic political moment. In a Nixon-goes-to-China maneuver, President George W. Bush pressured the bill through Congress with the aid of Democrats like Sen. Edward Kennedy. Confronting Republicans' abhorrence of a federal role in public schools, he declared educational excellence to be a national issue, and "change will not come by disdaining or dismantling the federal role."
Which is exactly what the new law does. House Speaker Paul Ryan and a Wall Street Journal editorial proclaim it "the greatest devolution of power back to the states in education in 25 years."
Should that matter? Shouldn't children and parents be able to rely on the cherished principle of state and local control? The answer is unequivocally no. Supporters of the law have forgotten or ignore the historical fact that state and local systems have failed to provide equal educational opportunity for the poorest and most vulnerable students. Nor have they been held accountable for their failures.
NCLB sought accountability. It required states to impose high academic standards and tests, and to break down the results, for example, by poverty, race and students with disabilities. It also imposed escalating sanctions on low-performing schools.
The law had flaws, like unrealistic goals for student progress. But its fatal structural defects were counterintuitive and much deeper: NCLB didn't give too much power to the feds, but too little. It left states and local districts with the discretion to set their own standards and tests, and what immediately followed was a "race to the bottom" to cover up low performance. To overcome this, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan cajoled and coerced states to adopt rigorous Common Core standards and national tests — including Maryland, which has commendably held firm despite the national backlash.
The fierce reaction came, predictably, from conservatives who oppose any federal role. But they were aided and abetted by education progressives and liberal teachers unions who resist accountability and in particular detest testing (while disregarding that most testing is imposed by states and localities, not NCLB). The common cause was to curtail Mr. Duncan's aggressiveness, knowing that state and local agencies will weaken accountability if left on their own.
The Every Student Succeeds Act embodies this educational realpolitik. Its paramount aim is to severely reduce the authority of the U.S. education secretary. State and local autonomy over standards, testing and sanctions is virtually assured. Gary Orfield, a pre-eminent expert on the intersection of civil rights and public school policy, observes that NCLB was "very assertive and interventionist," while the new law strips federal funding of its "leverage for any national purpose."
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to distribute large-scale federal aid to poor communities, he proclaimed, "I deeply believe no law I have signed or will ever sign means more to the future of America." Yet, until NCLB, there was no attempt to hold states and local school systems accountable for whether funds were effectively spent. They weren't well spent and still aren't. Notably too, the new law includes no additional federal funds for impoverished urban and other poor school districts.
While some civil rights groups have voiced opposition, most Democrats and other liberal groups have climbed aboard the bipartisan bandwagon. The Education Trust, long a beacon for educational equity, cites the need to compromise, despite noting that "Given the long history of state and local decisions that shortchange vulnerable students," the new law is "cause for serious trepidation."
All told, it's more capitulation than compromise. It brings to mind the political saying, if you're getting chased out of town, get out in front of the crowd and pretend it's a parade. Our poorest and most vulnerable students deserve better.
Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.