No Child Left Behind is gone
President signs bill replacing 2002 education law
(This story, which originally reported on Congressional passage of the bill, was updated after President Obama signed the legislation on December 10.)
THE NO CHILD Left Behind law has been left behind as President Obama signed a major overhaul of the federal education law with a bipartisan delegation of Congressional leaders looking on.
The new bill, dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act, dramatically dials back the federal government’s oversight of schools, reflecting the growing backlash against standardized testing and the mandates of No Child Left Behind, which had become increasingly unpopular. But the final legislation, which has been the focus of intense negotiation for months, retained enough federal requirements of schools serving needy students to win support from Democrats and President Obama, who plans to sign the bill on Thursday.
“The goals of No Child Left Behind, the predecessor of this law, were the right ones,” Obama said at the White House bill-signing. “High standards. Accountability. Closing the achievement gap. Making sure that every child was learning, not just some. But in practice, it often fell short. It didn’t always consider the specific needs of each community. It led to too much testing during classroom time. It often forced schools and school districts into cookie-cutter reforms that didn’t always produce the kinds of results that we wanted to see. And that’s OK — sometimes reform efforts require you try something, it doesn’t work, you learn some lessons, and you make modifications.”
Earlier versions of the education bill that were passed by the House and Senate over the summer had largely abandoned any requirement that states or districts intervene in struggling schools. The Senate rejected an amendment, authored by Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, and cosponsored by Warren and fellow Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, to include accountability for low-performing schools.
The three senators were the only Democrats to vote against the Senate’s early version of the bill. Warren said at the time that the bill did not live up to the “powerful legacy” of the law. No Child Left Behind was just the name given to the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, a landmark bill passed at a time when other major civil rights legislation was enacted, which established an important federal role in education, including steering additional funding to schools educating lots of poor children.
Leading civil rights groups said Congress was on the verge of abandoning the federal government’s commitment to the education of poor and minority children, who make up the bulk of students in low-performing schools.
Booker threatened to filibuster a final bill that did not include a strong accountability provision. The White House talked of a possible veto.
House-Senate conferees appeared to heed those warnings. The final bill, reported out by the conference committee just before Thanksgiving, maintains the requirement of annual testing in math and English in grades 3-8 and once in high schools. It requires that achievement data be reported separately by race, disability status, and family income. It also requires that districts intervene with turnaround plans in a state’s lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, but it leaves it up to states and districts to determine how those schools are identified and what the intervention should be.
Warren, who was on the conference committee, succeeded in also getting the final bill to require states to identify and intervene with resources and evidence-based interventions in any high school with a graduation rate below 67 percent. She also pushed for changes in the bill’s funding formula to ensure that federal aid to schools is targeted at those schools and districts with high concentrations of poverty.
US Rep. Katherine Clark, a Melrose Democrat who sits on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, was one of seven Democratic House members on the House-Senate conference committee.
“I think it has a lot of pieces that are going to be very beneficial to both kids and educators going forward,” Clark told CommonWealth following last week’s House vote to approve the bill.
Clark said it was heartening to see the bill evolve from the original House version “that probably would not have had a single Democratic vote and would have been opposed by civil rights organizations to a bill that has broad, bipartisan support.”
Among the provisions Clark pushed for were preschool development grants, an existing initiative supporting early education programs that the bill now enshrines in law. It also includes a provision Clark pushed for to have student data on foster and homeless youth broken out separately.
The House passed the bill by a wide margin, 359 to 64. All of the dissenting votes came from Republicans. Wednesday’s Senate vote was 82-12, also with only Republicans voting against it.
John King, who is slated to take the reins as education secretary when Arne Duncan steps down at the end of the year, in a recent visit to Boston praised the efforts by Sens. Murphy, Booker, and Warren that kept pressure on Congress to maintain federal accountability for school performance. King, a one-time Roxbury charter school leader who was in Boston for an event at the nonprofit agency College Bound Dorchester, said the amendment the senators filed over the summer laid down a key marker for the negotiations that led to a final bill.
“Their amendment reminded people that this is a law first passed in 1965,” said King. “It has to be viewed in the context of the civil rights era.”
The bill nonetheless represents a clear federal retreat from the strong role in schools advanced by the No Child Law. Only a little more than dozen years ago, similarly large, bipartisan majorities supported the No Child legislation, with Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush both claiming the bill as a signature domestic policy achievement.
But the law became deeply unpopular both with conservatives, who wanted to return control to the states and local districts, and with teachers unions, who recoiled at efforts to link educator evaluations to student outcomes.
A BloombergView editorial ripped the new education bill — and Obama for his willingness to sign it — saying the legislation “reflects Republicans’ unhealthy suspicion of the federal government and Democrats’ unhealthy trust of teachers’ unions. In other words, the worst of both worlds.”
While Democrats and the White House say it preserves enough of a role for the federal government, the bill was hailed in a Wall Street Journal editorial as “the largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter-century.”
On the Senate floor on Wednesday morning, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the bill “forward-looking conservative reform” that is “designed to let students succeed, not to allow Washington to grow.“
A coalition of 37 civil rights and education groups that pushed hard to maintain a more muscular federal role in education offered a decidedly tepid statement of support for the final bill. The groups said there had been “significant improvement” from the earlier versions of the bill, but ”the compromise that has resulted in the Every Student Succeeds Act is not the bill that we would have written.”
While Republicans praised the return of more control to states and districts, the civil rights groups said, “state and local control has too often been an obstruction to narrowing disparities.”
In a speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday night, Warren acknowledged those worries, even as she spoke in favor of the bill.“I still have real concerns about what the states will do with the new flexibility it provides,” she said, “and many of us will be watching closely to see if the states deliver for our kids.”