The Tennessean: Editorial: Feds: Gives states, locals more control on education

Posted on April 13, 2015

Fourteen years ago a bipartisan coalition of federal lawmakers passed the controversial and now much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act.

Another bipartisan effort this year could reform the law to provide states and local school districts something they've pined for all this time: more local control.

A deal crafted by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Maryville, who is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, along with Democratic ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., would remove the stick from the federal government that:

• requires that states adhere to federal test-based accountability standards
• tightly controls how states spend certain monies on education, and
• mandates how teacher evaluations are to be carried out.

In addition, the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, which is up for a committee vote Tuesday, forbids the federal government from determining or approving state standards.

This is a significant and important step to move states, such as Tennessee, beyond the debate over Common Core standards, which has led to a costly change in accountability tests and has created confusion among teachers over what standards to teach.

The White House, which has called for reforming No Child Left Behind, and the National Education Association, representing teachers, have been receptive of the bill.

The Common Core standards are a set of voluntary standards focused on critical thinking that several states, such as Tennessee, have adopted. These are not the same as the curriculum teachers would teach in the classroom, but the federal government linking the standards to competitive federal grants made Common Core controversial and despised by critics who felt the federal government was encroaching upon state and local control.

Tennessee General Assembly members this year have filed or debated numerous education bills that would repeal Common Core or create new standards. No significant action is expected this year.

A state Senate committee compromise reached in March would create a committee to further study Common Core standards. That would support a review that Gov. Bill Haslam is already conducting, which has drawn more than 100,000 comments.

Alexander and Murray's deal would address many of the concerns of the critics.

It would require federal tests for third- through 12th-graders but would let states develop their own accountability measures and determine how much weight to give those tests.

Some other features of the bill include competitive grants for charter schools. States would qualify for incentives to encourage the opening of more charter schools.

Low-performing schools would be eligible for federal grants to improve, but the federal government could not dictate the reforms.

The federal government would still collect data on a variety of students, such as minority learners and English-language learners, to ensure they are making gains.

Senators should give the bill great consideration, and the bipartisan effort should be debated on its merits in all of Congress.