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It’s been a long and winding road, but reauthorization of the federal government’s primary education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, looks like a done deal. The reauthorization bill, now dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed the House last week, 359 to 64, and passed the Senate today by a similarly large margin. The White House has indicated that President Obama will sign it into law. It will be a nice holiday present for the nation—a law that embraces federalism and might even do some good for students.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the ESEA into law. Like most federal programs, it was well-intentioned and meant to be limited. Its main provision, Title I, offered federal aid to schools with large percentages of poor children. Over the years, scores of programs and billions of dollars were added (now, about $15 billion annually). The feds attached strings to the money they handed out.

Federal involvement in education was expanded dramatically in 2002, when President George W. Bush signed an ESEA reauthorization that had passed both the House and the Senate with strong bipartisan support. Renamed No Child Left Behind, the law mandated that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014, but left it up to each state to administer tests and define what “proficient” meant. It also mandated that all teachers be “highly qualified” by 2006. (Neither goal was achieved.) If a school didn’t make “adequate yearly progress” toward 100 percent proficiency, the federal government labeled it “in need of improvement” and started detailed interventions, including allowing students to transfer to successful schools within the district (if there were any) or receive supplemental tutoring. Beyond that stood the threat of further corrective actions, including school restructuring.

Under the Obama administration, Washington’s involvement in education policy has intensified. In 2009, as part of the stimulus package, a $4.35 billion competitive-grants program called Race to the Top encouraged states to adopt more rigorous academic standards, institute teacher-evaluation systems based partly on student test scores, and support the expansion of charter schools. As states failed to meet the utopian goals set by NCLB, education secretary Arne Duncan offered waivers from the statute’s requirements if states advanced reform priorities favored by the administration.

NCLB has yielded some positive results over the past 13 years. It ushered in a new era of accountability: states test every child, every year, in grades three through eight (and once in high school) in both reading and math. They disaggregate the results according to race, income, and other categories to ensure that school districts can’t ignore poorly performing subgroups. Policymakers, researchers, teachers, and parents can access a wealth of public data on student achievement that didn’t exist a decade ago. States have raised academic standards (mostly thanks to the much-maligned and misunderstood Common Core), and high-quality charter-school options have proliferated. Some locales—notably, Tennessee and Washington, D.C.—have used thoughtful teacher-evaluation plans to improve teacher quality and boost academic performance. Since 2002, American students have done modestly better on federal NAEP exams. Advanced-placement pass-rates and high school graduation rates have similarly improved.

Given these modest but positive results, why the bipartisan push to revamp NCLB? In a word: humility. The past 13 years have shown policymakers the limits of federal power to influence outcomes in K–12 education. Many ideas in NCLB (and in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top and waiver policies) are worthy, but the federal government was—and is—simply too far away from most districts and schools to prescribe effective remedies to their problems. As local districts attempted to meet the federal law’s requirements, unintended negative consequences began to mount: mind-numbing paperwork and bureaucracy; overly prescriptive policy interventions; legitimate parental concerns about over-testing (most not prescribed by NCLB); and a narrowing of curriculum to tested subjects (reading and math) at the expense of history, science, art, and other areas.

The new law, ESSA, threads the needle of federalism: the federal government lays down basic rules of the road but puts states in the driver’s seat of education policy. The law requires that states continue to test students, break out the data for subgroups, and institute a school-accountability system. Test scores would make up about half of a school’s rating, but states can incorporate more subjective factors such as school climate and teacher engagement. State and local districts would have to use “evidence-based interventions” in the bottom 5 percent of schools and in high schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate. (There’s a lot of ambiguity on what happens if state plans don’t satisfy the education secretary.)

Beyond these broad parameters, state and local districts are given much discretion. They control how their accountability systems work, how to intervene in low-performing schools, whether and how to evaluate teachers, what tests to give students, and what standards to use. States are given increased funding flexibility. Instead of the old School Improvement Grants that helped fund interventions in failing schools, states can set aside up to 7 percent of their Title I funding for school turnaround efforts. Dozens of federal programs are collapsed into block grants that states can use as they wish. Funding is included for states to pilot early-childhood education programs and research their effectiveness.

Some on the right think that the new law doesn’t go far enough toward scaling back the federal government’s role in education. But education should be a national priority, and federal lawmakers ought to insist on transparency about academic outcomes and how federal money is spent. Some on the left criticize the new law as a retreat from accountability. They fear that states, left to their own devices, will abandon efforts to hold schools and teachers accountable for student achievement, especially the academic success of poor minority children. But it’s not clear how much federal pressure was driving reform; NCLB mandates weren’t being enforced and many states were experimenting with accountability efforts before the law was passed.

Under ESSA, states will find themselves with much more discretion over their accountability systems, their teacher evaluations, how they intervene in low-performing schools, and much else. State-based education-reform groups will need to continue pushing for accountability at the local level. Thankfully, a lot of the heavy lifting has been done regarding setting up data systems and metrics based on individual student growth. We live in a data-driven era—the website gets 60 million unique visits annually—and the new law won’t change that. The new accountability fights will revolve around how to get information to parents and empower them to fight for quality choices and funding equity.

Some school-choice advocates are upset that the law doesn’t make Title I funds portable—i.e., federal funds can’t follow the child to his school of choice. But that would be an enormously complex undertaking, and funds provided to each student would be relatively small. However, the legislation includes a pilot project allowing 50 districts to experiment with combining local, state, and federal funds into a single bundle that would follow a child to his (public) school of choice.

The Every Student Succeeds Act ends the federal government’s ill-fated attempt to micromanage policy in the nation’s 100,000 public schools and 14,000 school districts across 50 states. Instead, the Department of Education will gather data, provide transparency, conduct research, and promote best practices. That’s a better role for the federal government—and it might actually help improve student outcomes.


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