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The fight over K-12 education appears headed back to the states

A young boy stands in front of a school. Battles over education reform would shift from the federal government to states, if new legislation is enacted. (Pamela A. Moore/iStock)

With Congress poised to pass a law that would shift power over K-12 public school policy from the federal government back to the states, the debate about improving schools is shifting from Washington to the 50 state capitals.

Congress is expected to take a final vote on a bill to replace No Child Left Behind, the current federal law, after Thanksgiving. House and Senate conferees endorsed the new legislation 39 to 1 on Thursday, and while some conservatives are unhappy with it, the bill is expected to pass and the White House has indicated that President Obama will sign it.

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The greatest change in the proposed law is a dismantling of the federal accountability system that defined whether K-12 schools were successful, prescribed actions to improve struggling schools, and imposed penalties on states and schools that failed to make progress. It also prevents the federal government from requiring states to evaluate teachers and principals and adopt specific academic standards.

Decisions about how to identify successful and struggling schools and teachers, how much weight to give to test scores, and how and when to intervene in struggling schools will be left to each state.

“The governors and state legislatures in many states will likely face an onslaught of proposals from unions, school administrators and others seeking to leverage the new flexibility states will have under the new law,” said Charles Barone, education policy director at Democrats for Education Reform, a nonprofit group. “On the heels of everything else they’ve been facing on Common Core . . . comes a whole new wave of potential changes on how to rate and intervene in schools.”

Interest groups already are anticipating clashes in state capitals as the states create their own school accountability systems.

“It means that you’re going to have 50 different fights over some really important issues,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank. “Teacher evaluation fights are going to be some of the biggest ones, in a way the most political and the most easy to understand from the public’s view.”

Teachers unions, which are opposed to using test scores to evaluate educators, are a powerful lobbying force in many states, including California and New Jersey.

“It’s not over ’til it’s over, but assuming the Congress does pass this and the president signs it, we’re committed, as I believe the National Education Association is, to starting in January to work with states,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Educators must have a voice in what comes next. They have been ignored — or worse, vilified — in the last decade or two with this top-down test-and-sanction policy. We need to go bottom-up.”

Mary Kusler, the chief lobbyist for the National Education Association, flew to California on Friday to talk over the issues with NEA leaders. “There’s going to be a huge variety of what these accountability systems will look like across states,” Kusler said. “We want educators to be involved and engaged in all 50 states to help design them.”

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But in recent years, advocacy groups have sprung up as a counterweight to teachers unions and they, too, will be focused on state lawmakers, policymakers and state boards of education.

“Most states have some kind of school reform organization that’s been created over the last decade, with funding from [Bill and Melinda] Gates, [Eli and Edythe] Broad, the usual suspects,” Petrilli said. “And they’ll be going toe-to-toe with the unions over these kind of issues.”

Kati Haycock is president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit group devoted to closing the achievement gap. It supports the use of test data to evaluate schools and teachers, among other measures. At a weekly meeting at her Washington offices on Friday, civil rights groups and business organizations discussed the coming K-12 battles they anticipate in the states.

“Folks are already talking with one another about how to map out who has what in which state and how to introduce our local folks who don’t know each other,” Haycock said. “People have already begun to put together a coalition.”

But selling lawmakers and policymakers on the wonky details of accountability systems might be different than the more visceral fights that have taken place in state legislatures in the past several years over the Common Core State Standards, many say.

“It’s pretty complex when you start talking about indexes for accountability plans,” said Cheryl Oldham, vice president of education policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports the Common Core and standardized testing and wants states to use test data to judge school performance. “Does it mean a big political battle state by state? I don’t think so. But who thought the Common Core was going to turn into a big political battle?”

Under the proposed legislation, states would have 18 months to create their new accountability systems.

“Governors and state legislatures may wind up needing to shelve whatever other plans they had for education policy in 2016-17, because this will likely keep them very busy,” said Barone, of Democrats for Education Reform. “I hope they’re ready.”