Senate vote: first step toward dismantling No Child Left Behind

A Senate panel votes to drop a signature provision of No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era education reform. The new law would eliminate the mandate for 'adequate yearly progress.'

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
President Obama speaks about No Child Left Behind reform in the White House in Washington last month.

In a major course correction, a Senate panel on Thursday proposed taking nearly decade of school reform in a new direction by largely dismantling a controversial accountability system set up by the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

The proposed new law retains a historic federal requirement that schools test students annually in math and reading – and publish the results of those tests, disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and poverty.

But it ends a federal requirement that schools demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” or proficiency for all students in math and reading by 2014 – a goal that now appears unattainable. Instead, it calls for states to adopt “college- and career-ready standards,” with no federal timeline on the pace or scope of those standards.

It also derails ongoing moves to use test data to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers in helping students reach those goals, a move long resisted by teachers unions.

‘It’s clearly a major retrenchment of the federal role,” says John Jennings, president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy, which has tracked the progress of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) since 2002. “It’s an attempt to pull back from the provisions of NCLB and give states more flexibility, but it does leave in place the framework of a national accountability program.”

NCLB, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, marked a historic accord between a Republican president and liberals in Congress, such a Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller (D) of California. The aim was to use federal mandates and funding to leverage changes in local schools to help poor, low-performing students. Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, then chair of the House education panel, broke with House conservative leaders to help broker that deal.

But over time, the new federal mandates produced outcomes that all sides deemed dysfunctional, such as designating award-winning schools as “failing,” because a handful of students in a category to be tested failed to meet testing goals.

It also produced a blizzard of federal waivers to schools unable to meet the requirements, as well as strategies to “game” the system that damaged the law’s credibility.

Most significantly, the law provoked massive resistance from teachers unions, a key constituency for Democrats, who feared that teachers would be evaluated by the poor performance of their students.

A surge of conservatives into Congress also undermined support in GOP ranks. When Republicans won the House majority in 1994, they pledged to rein in government, including ending the US Department of Education. Instead, President Bush eight years later enhanced the federal role. Tea party conservatives, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, are now reviving calls to end the federal role in education.

“Let’s find out what we think of No Child left behind before we rush through a 868-page bill that no one has time to read,” said Senator Paul, whose bid to delay the markup produced a promise by chairman Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa to schedule a hearing on the law in November before it reaches the Senate floor.

The committee passed the overhaul by a vote of 15 to 7. Three Republicans – ranking member Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a former US Education Secretary – voted with all Democrats to support the revised bill.

Some advocates for poor children called the decision to drop federal accountability mandates a betrayal. “There’s now an unholy and unnatural alliance between the tea party and the NEA, and this bill is a product of that,” says Amy Watkins, vice president of governmental affairs for the Education Trust, which tracks national progress in closing “achievement gaps” for poor, black, and Hispanic students. “Together, they produced a bill that sells out students.”

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