On No Child law, Warren carries Kennedy torch
Fights for accountability provision in face of union pushback
IN 2002, TED KENNEDY celebrated one of the signature achievements of his legislative career when George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which the Massachusetts senator helped steer through Congress.
The law, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, marked a turning point in national education policy, the first time a muscular set of standards and accountability for school performance had been attached to the billions of dollars in federal aid sent to US schools. With much of that money directed to schools educating low-income and minority students, the No Child law became the policy underpinning for the catch phrase, invoked by Bush and others, that education reform was “the civil rights issue of our time.”
Thirteen years later, No Child Left Behind is under withering attack. And Elizabeth Warren, who holds the seat Kennedy occupied for more than four decades, is fighting an underdog, rearguard battle to salvage a central feature of the law – a provision that makes districts accountable for intervening in chronically low-performing schools.
The bipartisan support for No Child Left Behind of just over a dozen years ago has been replaced by deep hostility from both the left and right to the 2002 law and its focus on standardized testing and tough, federally-mandated medicine for struggling schools. After years of delay, Congress is moving to reauthorize the No Child law, but the versions of the bill approved this month by the House and Senate would dramatically scale back the federal government’s role in K-12 education.
All sides agree on the need to correct excesses of the 2002 statute, which applied a very heavy hand in directing how schools respond to low student achievement. But reform advocates and civil rights leaders say the country is now at risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The danger, say Warren and others fighting the current versions of the bill, is that the pendulum is swinging so far the other way that the federal government may end up walking away from any commitment to those students who have historically not been well-served by schools that are left entirely under local control.
“Let’s not forget how we got to No Child Left Behind and standards,” says Paul Reville, the former Massachusetts secretary of education. “If you leave everything local, you’re going to get a wide distribution of rigor in what’s expected of students. And the idea that you’d just let anything go in terms of standards and accountability, I think, is dangerous for the most disadvantaged students in our society.”
NO CRITICISM LEFT BEHIND
The No Child Left Behind Act was not a new federal law, but rather the name given to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed by Congress in 1965 during the height of the civil rights movement and the Great Society anti-poverty programs. The law has to be reauthorized every five years, and No Child Left Behind was the title given to the update that Congress passed in 2001 and Bush signed in January 2002. It seemed like a new law because it increased so dramatically the federal government’s involvement in schools.
The law set the wildly ambitious — and ultimately far from attainable — goal of having every child reach basic proficiency in English and math by 2014. It also required districts to track and report progress toward that goal. For those schools not making enough yearly gains, there were increasingly tough sanctions and directives, with schools ultimately forced to restructure low-performing schools by replacing the principal and most staff, contract with an outside organization to operate the school, or take other drastic steps.
Those mandates, and the focus on standardized test results as the barometer for measuring school performance, have become increasingly unpopular. The results of the interventions overall have been uneven. Studies suggest No Child has produced modest gains in math scores, but has had little or no impact on reading scores. There is some evidence that the ultimate intervention, school restructuring, led to student achievement gains, with some researchers suggesting change in school leadership as the key factor.
It is after years of mounting anger at the federal reach into schools that Congress is finally moving to update the law. The versions that have passed the House and Senate would retain the requirement that all students be tested in English and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. But they strip away any accountability requirement to identify and intervene in chronically low-performing schools. That has become the central focus of the debate over the bill, which is now in the hands of a House-Senate conference committee that is trying to reconcile the two versions.
Warren was a cosponsor of an amendment authored by Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, that would have added an accountability provision into the Senate version. The amendment would have required states to identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools for intervention. The same would have applied to any high school where fewer than two-thirds of students were graduating. But in contrast to the rigidly prescribed interventions in the 2002 No Child law, the amendment would have left it entirely up to states and districts to devise intervention plans to improve struggling schools.
The amendment was defeated, 54-43, in a vote almost entirely along party lines, with Rob Portman of Ohio the only Republican to join with 42 Democratic senators in voting yes.
Most Democrats then supported the final Senate bill, which passed overwhelmingly, 81-17, without the Murphy amendment. Warren was one of just three Democrats to vote against it, joining with Murphy and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
In a statement released after the July 16 vote, Warren called the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act a “landmark civil rights law.” Through it, she said, the country “committed to improving educational opportunity for children living in poverty, children of color, children with disabilities, and other groups of kids who had been underserved, mistreated, or outright ignored by public schools. Today’s bill does not live up to that powerful legacy.”
The House version of the law, which only passed by five votes, is even weaker on accountability, and includes a provision allowing parents to have their children “opt-out” of standardized testing. It also includes a controversial measure referred to as “portability,” which would allow federal aid that targets needy children to follow low-income students even if they move to relatively well-off districts with few poor children.
President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have been strong proponents of standards and federal accountability. Obama indicated he isn’t happy with either version, so a veto is possible if the bill that emerges from the conference committee does not add some of the provisions of Murphy’s amendment.
Whether the final bill is “a setback for those whose primary focus is on low-income kids and kids of color will depend very much on the accountability provisions of the law,” says Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a Washington policy and advocacy organization.
Views on education reform defy traditional conservative and liberal labels in a way not seen in almost any other major policy debate. That has produced some strange bedfellows, including in the current battle over the federal education law.
Teaming up to fight off the accountability amendment in the No Child reauthorization have been conservative Republicans and the teachers unions that have been a mainstay of the Democratic Party. To Republicans with strong states’-rights views, the law has been an example of federal intrusion into areas that should be left to states and local communities. The National Education Association, meanwhile, the country’s largest teachers union, opposed the amendment because it objected to its requirement that districts intervene even in schools where only subgroups of students, such as English language learners or those with special needs, were struggling.
“It’s a dangerously unholy alliance, born out of a bizarre romanticism for what happens when locals get freed to run everything,” says Haycock. “There’s this kind of romantic idea that folks at the local level and state level know best. But these are the very same people who have systematically underfunded poor kids and kids of color. The need to not have the pendulum swing back there is evidenced from years and decades of states and communities running these kids over.”
Haycock’s argument hints at the parallels between the federal role in schools that was introduced with the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 and ground staked out by major civil rights legislation of the same era. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 both asserted that there were fundamental rights that would not be left to states and local communities to adjudicate.
What it means to ensure an adequate education to all, however, is vastly more complicated than declaring a right to equal access to public accommodations. Nothing may illustrate that better than the fault lines that have opened up in education debates, including those now dividing two traditional Democratic constituencies.
The National Education Association, which opposed the accountability amendment, and a coalition of civil rights groups that pushed for its adoption both say they will use the Senate roll call vote on the amendment in their rating of members of Congress. A plus mark on one group’s scorecard will mean a demerit on the other’s.
Andrew Rotherham, a White House advisor in the Clinton administration who now heads a Washington-based education policy group, says the No Child reauthorization underscores just how much the education reform debate has upended traditional political battle lines. “I can’t think of any other issue where if Elizabeth Warren were taking a stand on behalf of low-income kids against the establishment she wouldn’t be getting bouquets” from the left, he says. “But because it’s education, the establishment includes these Democratic interest groups who hate accountability, and so it’s just crickets.”
It’s actually more than just silence that’s greeting Warren. Some traditional allies have turned openly hostile.
Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, in a statement following the Senate debate, tore into Warren for cosponsoring an amendment that Madeloni said would “essentially continue the most punitive aspects of No Child Left Behind” by using “test scores as a basis for labeling and punishing schools.”
The condemnation came despite the fact that the amendment Warren and other Democrats pushed would leave it entirely to states to set the benchmarks for determining low-performing schools and for crafting intervention strategies to help them.
“It’s pretty weak soup,” Rotherham says of the accountability measure, which he nonetheless supports as better than nothing.
Warren has rocketed to political stardom as the new face of an unapologetically liberal wing of the Democratic Party. But her break with teachers unions on the No Child reauthorization is not the first time she has shown a willingness to buck Democratic Party orthodoxy on education issues.
In her 2003 book, The Two-Income Trap, Warren endorsed the idea of school vouchers, a heretical view in liberal circles. Warren’s support for a system that would allow children to enroll in schools across district lines sprang from her longstanding focus on the financial stress facing middle-class families. Warren argued that families were becoming overextended not because they binged recklessly on giant-screen TVs or other indulgences, but because they were maxing out on mortgage debt in order to buy into communities with better schools. We need to “decouple zip codes from educational opportunity,” she said at a 2003 forum in Boston.
The battle over accountability provisions in the federal law may not matter as much in Massachusetts, where the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act, a precursor to the No Child Left Behind law, put in place strong standards and accountability. A 2010 update strengthened the state’s ability to intervene in chronically underperforming schools and districts. It is the basis for the recent state takeover of the Lawrence and Holyoke districts.
Jim Peyser, the state education secretary, says the Baker administration is committed to maintaining strong state-based accountability. There are some early, promising results from Lawrence, where the state turnaround plan has incorporated everything from longer school days to greater school autonomy over teacher hiring.
But Peyser says the backlash against No Child Left Behind is understandable because the overall impact of the federal law in lifting failing schools has been so underwhelming.
“Part of what’s gotten us here is a certain amount of skepticism that the accountability provisions are producing actually meaningful results,” says Peyser. “I don’t think the experience we’ve had with NCLB is all that comforting that having a mandate to intervene leads to better outcomes.”
Peyser thinks the accountability amendment pushed by Warren and Democratic senators strikes the right balance by requiring states to devise plans to address chronic low performance, but not spelling out what those plans must be. “I think we should intervene in low-performing schools and districts,” says Peyser. “Having said that doesn’t mean I know what the secret sauce is to make those schools all successful.”
While it may not make a huge difference in Massachusetts if the accountability provisions don’t find their way back into a final federal bill, “in states that don’t have much commitment to accountability, especially for underserved populations, it would be a huge rollback,” says Rotherham, the Washington education policy expert.
“Without some accountability, kids who are often underserved in schools will just get swept under the carpet,” says Chris Gabrieli, who leads several Boston nonprofits focused on turning around low-performing schools in Lawrence and other districts, and serves as chairman of the state Board of Higher Education.That means Warren’s battle is less about her Massachusetts constituents and more of a civil rights fight for what she thinks matters for education nationally.
Haycock, the Education Trust president, says she and other leaders of organizations that make up a coalition of civil rights, disability, and business organizations had a meeting this spring with Warren in her Capitol Hill office. “Everyone walked out of the room and said, she really gets this down deep,” says Haycock. “She gets the social justice part, but also the responsibility to taxpayers to use wisely the money they send to Washington to help kids and help the country. We said, we’ve got a great champion here. There were many of us who left saying she’s a terrific heir to Kennedy.”