It’s finally here: Our best chance to update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since its passage shortly after 9/11. A whole generation of students has come and gone, yet our nation’s key education law remains the same. There’s absolutely no good reason to delay reauthorization any longer. To the contrary; it’s sorely overdue. And despite the heated rhetoric—from the civil rights groups on the Left to Heritage Action on the Right—the remaining areas of disagreement are small and mostly symbolic. It’s time for all of us to act like grownups and help get a recognizable version of the Alexander-Murray bill across the finish line. (At least into conference with the House!)
Why should conservatives support a bipartisan compromise bill like this? That’s easy: It’s sharply to the right of current law (ESEA circa 2001) and current policy (Arne Duncan’s “waivers”). It hands significant authority back to the states on all the issues that matter: the content of academic standards and related assessments, the design of school accountability systems, and interventions in low-performing schools. It scraps ESEA’s misguided “highly qualified teachers” provision and Duncan’s teacher evaluation mandate. And it holds the line on spending.
How about the Left? Civil rights groups and others should welcome its maintenance of annual testing; its continuing emphasis on the collection and dissemination of student achievement data disaggregated by key subgroups; and its requirement that states and districts take action to deal with chronically failing schools.
The issues now animating advocates, dreamers, and disrupters on both sides are more symbolic than substantive. Some conservatives want more school choice in the bill, yet most choice advocates themselves want to keep Uncle Sam at bay, understanding that he has a tendency to hug favored reforms to death. (See: teacher evaluations.) Some liberals want a fight to the death over accountability for high-performing schools that aren’t doing right by some demographics, yet a Fordham Institute analysis demonstrated that such schools are few and far between.
Above all: Do either conservatives or liberals have a realistic pathway to an ESEA bill that’s more to their liking? Do conservatives want to continue to live under a waiver policy that grants the U.S. Department of Education the authority to micromanage states’ annual tests, accountability systems, and teacher evaluation approaches? Do liberals want to continue to live with a law that is creating significant backlash to education reform, especially on the Left and particularly when it comes to testing?
To my friends on the Left and Right: If not this bill, then which? If not now, then when? Let’s turn the page on the No Child Left Behind era.