The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved sweeping legislation that resets Washington’s relationship with the nation’s 100,000 public schools, ending the landmark No Child Left Behind Act and sending significant power back to states and local districts while maintaining limited federal oversight of education.
The 85-12 vote mirrored the bill’s bipartisan passage in the House last week. President Obama plans to sign it into law Thursday.
“It is the single biggest step toward local control of public schools in 25 years,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chair of the Senate education panel and a chief architect of the law along with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
Alexander said it would “unleash a flood of innovation and student achievement across America, community by community and state by state.”
The legislation will directly affect nearly 50 million public school students and their 3.4 million teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade. But its impact also will be felt by school boards, mayors, state legislators, governors, business groups, civil rights advocates, teachers unions and businesses with a stake in a public school market estimated to be worth about $700 billion.
Exactly how it will play out will vary from state to state.
“When authority is devolved to the states, you can get very different outcomes,” said Jeffrey R. Henig, professor of political science and education at the Teachers College of Columbia University.
Difficult issues remain: how to ensure high-quality teachers, how to get those teachers into schools that most need them, how to raise the achievement of millions of struggling students. Some states have the capacity, resources and political will to make tough decisions while others don’t, Henig said.
“It’ll be a mixed bag,” he said.
The bill, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, replaces No Child Left Behind, the 2002 signature domestic initiative of President George W. Bush that amplified Washington’s role in local classrooms. That law created a national system that judged schools based on math and reading test scores and required schools to raise scores every year or face escalating penalties.
Every Student Succeeds erases that system and instead lets each state develop its own methods for judging school quality. The bill allows states to count other factors, such as whether a school offers challenging courses or the degree of parent involvement.
States still will be required to test students annually in math and reading in grades three through eight and once in high school, and to publicly report the scores according to race, income, ethnicity, disability and whether students are English-language learners.
But states will decide what to do about the most troubled schools, those where test scores are in the lowest 5 percent, achievement gaps between groups of students are greatest, or where fewer than two-thirds of students graduate on time.
And states will decide how to weigh test scores and whether or how to evaluate teachers. They would set their own goals and timelines for academic progress, though their plans must be approved by the federal Department of Education.
Lily Eskelsen García — president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest union — called the bill’s passage an “end to our national nightmare and beginning of something so much better for kids.”
Others are concerned that it returns the country to a time when some states ignored the needs of struggling students.
“The reason we evolved to a more centralized system is because local school districts failed to act effectively on their own,” said Thomas Toch, an education policy expert at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “Many students were left behind in the era of local control, and now we’re going back to that era. It puts school districts in charge of fixing failing schools, the same school districts that are running the failing schools now.”
Alexander said he believes the new law will reduce overtesting, which he said was a byproduct of federal involvement.
“In our Senate hearings, we heard more about overtesting than any other subject,” Alexander said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “I believe this new law will result in fewer and better tests because states and classroom teachers will be deciding what to do about the results of those tests.”
Brianne Brown, a fifth-grade teacher in Boston, said she hopes Alexander is right.
“Kids are taking standardized tests every three weeks,” said Brown, who is also a policy fellow with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that tries to elevate the voices of teachers in education policy. “It was all with the best intentions. You want them to do well on the end-of-the-year test, so then you’re like, ‘Oh, let’s do some interim testing to make sure they’re on track.’ But it’s crazy.”
The legislation dismantles a second federal accountability system the Obama administration created, in which states were excused from the demands of No Child Left Behind if they adopted the administration’s favored policies. Forty-three states and the District hold those waivers today; they will be moot by August.
It is unclear whether states will retain those policies absent a federal mandate.
Teachers unions will push to end evaluation systems based on student test scores, a policy they say does not accurately measure good teaching.
“What has happened in this country is that public schooling has been reduced to testing, testing, testing,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which already has successfully challenged the teacher-evaluation system in New Mexico and has cases pending in Texas, Florida and New York.
Washington state lost its waiver from No Child Left Behind last year because state lawmakers objected to some of the requirements from the Obama administration. That meant the state had to spend $40 million in federal dollars for programs it knew were ineffective, instead of funding all-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes and afterschool programs, said Randy Dorn, the state superintendent for public instruction.
The new law “presents a challenge to get it right and keep kids in the forefront, not what’s best for teachers, parents and politicians,” he said.
The bill’s swift passage Wednesday was remarkable for the fact that Democrats and Republicans had struggled for eight years to come to an agreement, even as states grew increasingly vocal about the need for a new law. Republicans had been skeptical of the federal government’s ability to improve public education while Democrats didn’t entirely trust state and local governments to do so without pressure from Washington.
But all players were feeling “reform fatigue,” said Martin West, an associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “There is no appetite whatsoever for muscular federal reform efforts. That’s what drove the compromise.”
Sens. Alexander and Murray were heralded by their colleagues for crafting an agreement that broke through congressional gridlock.
“It’s not the bill I would have written on my own,” Murray told the Senate. “And I know this isn’t the bill Republicans would have written on their own. That’s the nature of compromise.”
The new law will significantly reduce the legal authority of the education secretary, who would be legally barred from influencing state decisions about academic benchmarks, such as the Common Core State Standards, teacher evaluations and other policies.
But Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who is stepping down at the end of the month, claimed victory, saying that the new law incorporates many of his ideas about the best way to improve schools, such as federally funded preschool.
That was a top priority for Murray, a former preschool teacher, who initially sought funding for preschool for low-income children but settled for a $250 million annual grant program to help states organize existing systems.
It will be some time before the country knows whether the new law improves public education, said Henig, of Columbia University.
“There will be changes in some places very early as some states test the limits as to what they can do differently,” he said. “But I think it’ll take us three, four, five years before we really have a sense of how this is rippling out throughout the system.”