Newsweek: The Education Law Everyone Wants to Fix

Posted on July 13, 2015

When it comes to setting standards for America’s public schools, there’s a remarkable degree of consensus: The system the federal government has in place—known as No Child Left Behind—doesn’t work. Fixing it, however, is about to set off a new round of fierce political combat in Washington, D.C., and draw in 2016 candidates as well.

Both the House and Senate are set to debate the 2001 No Child Left Behind law next week. Passed with bipartisan support—including the unlikely pairing of President George W. Bush and Massachusetts liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy—it sought to set national standards for school and student achievement, and mandated testing to make sure they were keeping up as well as funding incentives to keep schools on track.

But the goals that the 2001 law set turned out to be far too ambitious and, the chorus of critics say, too rigid. “Teaching to the test” is a refrain heard across the country. Test results have become an end-all, be-all, complain teachers and parents, Democrats and Republicans, alike.

No Child Left Behind “simplified all of school accountability to be a performance on a math test or a reading test,” says Mary Kusler, director of government relations for the National Education Association, which lobbies on behalf of teachers and other education professionals. That, Kusler says, “has corrupted the education our children are receiving because it has reduced our schools to this reduce and punish system.”

The two parties have very different visions for overhauling the law, however. Those in the middle, the House and Senate leaders that have drafted the legislation, are now faced with walking a tightrope between a measure that will win sufficient Republican support in the House but still get a signature from President Obama. That’s no easy task—the law has technically been expired since 2007, but Congress has not been able to muster the political consensus to reauthorize it since then. It’s still being implemented, though, because Congress continues to provide funding for the vast majority of its programs.

In the Senate, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, a former Secretary of Education, and Washington Democrat Patty Murray have crafted a proposal that passed their Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee unanimously in April. Their legislation would maintain the testing regimen put in place by No Child Left Behind but give states more flexibility in how they use test results to measure performance. That’s earned the hearty endorsement of teachers and groups like NEA, as well as business associations—which are usually on opposite sides of the education policy debate.

In order to get Democrats on board, Alexander dropped one big Republican priority from the bill—a provision that would link federal funding for students from low-income areas to the individual child, rather than the school district in which they reside, which is how the system works now. Republicans argue this “portability” measure gives children and their families an opportunity to go to better schools but Democrats say it will just weaken already struggling schools. It's part of a broader fight over “school choice” and whether students can use public funds to go to the school they want—even private school—via things like vouchers. That, says Kusler, defeats the whole purpose of the law, which is aimed at improving low-performing schools and “serving historically underserved populations.”

The House bill, sponsored by Minnesota Republican John Kline, includes the portability provision Republicans favor. That prompted a veto threat from the White House in February.

But even with that provision, Kline’s bill has had trouble winning conservative support. Republican leaders initially planned to hold a vote on it in late February but changed their minds at the last minute when it became apparent they didn’t have enough GOP support. Members aligned with the Tea Party argue the overhaul still spends too much money and leaves too much power in the hands of the federal government. They’re insisting on a vote on an amendment that would give states the option of opting out of No Child Left Behind requirements entirely, a proposal known in shorthand as A-PLUS.

“There’s just no conceivable way they can bring the Kline bill onto the floor without bringing up A-PLUS,” says Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action for America, the advocacy arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation. Holler’s group came out in strong opposition to the bill in February and plans to continue to oppose it unless that provision is included in the House bill. He argues that the House needs to pass the most conservative bill possible, given that they’ll then have to negotiate a final text with the Senate.

Given how toxic No Child Left Behind has become, 2016 candidates on the campaign trail are going to be hard-pressed to avoid the debate. There could be 100 amendments or more filed in the Senate, which means the four Republican senators running for president will have to weigh in on plenty of thorny questions surrounding education policy as it relates to race, inequality and states’ rights.

Even those candidates who won’t be voting, however, are bound to be questioned on the topic. Education policy has become a litmus test on the Right, with conservatives rallying against any attempts to nationalize what they believe should be state or local decisions. They’ve mainly focused on plans for a national curriculum, known as Common Core, which is not part of the No Child Left Behind law. But Common Core is indirectly linked, since states have adopted it to meet the testing and accountability standards that No Child Left Behind created.

Many Republican governors that initially embraced the Common Core standards, including 2016 long shots Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, have backed away from them amidst the conservative backlash. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is one of the few (along with Gov. John Kasich of Ohio) who has stood by Common Core. He also once offered the Obama administration support in its efforts to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, according to an email the website Buzzfeed published last month. Those education stands are a big reason for conservatives’ simmering distrust of this son and brother of past presidents.

The teachers’ unions, meanwhile, continue to hold tremendous sway in the Democratic primary, and their endorsements remain up for grabs in 2016. Dark horse candidate Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, is clearly eyeing that vote, and is scheduled to hold an education event followed by a meeting with the NEA of New Hampshire next week.

The presidential race also offers a rationale to conservative holdouts opposed to the No Child Left Behind reauthorization, which would be effective for as long as five years. With the possibility of a Republican sweeping into the White House, some argue it’s best to stick to the status quo for now, and tackle a more ambitious overhaul once a more conservative president is in office (they hope).

But Kusler, for one, is hopeful that the pressure from all sides to fix an unworkable law will ultimately force a political compromise—opposed to kicking the can down the road further. “I am entirely optimistic that we will get this done. We have never been so close,” she says. “We have created a perfect storm here.”