THE REWRITE of No Child Left Behind that passed the Senate on Thursday is called the Every Child Achieves Act. But there’s a hollow ring to the name, given the failure of lawmakers to put in place any requirements that states actually do something about schools that consistently fail to help their students achieve. As the legislation goes to a conference committee, President Obama should make clear he will veto any measure that doesn’t make states accountable.
Overhaul of the 13-year-old No Child Left Behind, the principal federal K-12 education law, is long overdue. In that sense, the Senate’s 81 to 17 vote for a bipartisan measure crafted by education committee leaders Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is a significant step, even if differences with the narrowly passed House bill make prospects for enacted legislation uncertain.
There are things to admire about the Senate bill, particularly when viewed against the deficient House measure. It preserves the annual math and reading testing for students and the requirement that scores, broken down by race, income and special needs, be made public. Both were core features of No Child Left Behind and have done much to help boost student achievement. That’s particularly true for disadvantaged students whose struggles had previously been masked.
However, in an effort to address No Child Left Behind’s unrealistic definitions of school progress and overly prescriptive requirements for state and district actions, the Senate went too far. It would leave it to the states to define which schools are struggling and when and what — if any — remedies should be adopted. Civil rights groups rightly fear that this will lead to a return to the days when the needs of children of color and those from low-income families or with special needs were ignored. Business groups warn that the United States will become less competitive if there is no accountability in improving schools and student achievement.
An amendment offered this week by five Democratic senators would have required states to take action if a school is persistently low-performing or if any subgroup of students misses state-set goals for consecutive years. Given opposition from the strange alliance of teachers unions and tea party conservatives, it was no surprise this sensible measure failed. But the fact it got 43 votes underlines continued support for accountability; we hope it gives the Democrats leverage in what promises to be a challenging conference. The House’s Republican-only bill has even worse accountability provisions that water down testing requirements and allow parents to opt their children out of tests.
Democrats, including the one in the White House, need to make clear that they won’t accept any bill that leaves out protections for vulnerable students. In other words, a bill called Every Child Achieves must be more than an empty promise.