Last Tuesday, Senator Tom Harkin (D–IA) introduced a much-anticipated proposal to rewrite No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and has announced that committee markup on the legislation will begin this Wednesday.
Those hoping for a package that would follow in the footsteps of the House Education and the Workforce Committee by beginning to reduce the failed federal role in education will be disappointed.
Harkin’s proposal piles new federal directives, rules, and regulations on top of the existing 600-page law. The proposal continues to wager that this time Washington’s education reform efforts will be effective.
Of course, this represents the ninth such bet since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, and none has proved successful. NCLB, the most recent reauthorization of ESEA, has left local school districts crying out for more freedom from federal red tape and to have their educational decision-making authority restored. Harkin’s proposal, however, merely “tweaks” NCLB around the edges.
For example, the bill would codify Obama Administration education priorities, such as the “equitable distribution” of effective teachers among schools. It would eliminate “adequate yearly progress”—the onerous federal requirement that mandated every child be proficient in reading and math by 2014—but would replace it with requirements that states prove they have “college- and career-ready” standards, giving Washington more control over the content taught in local schools.
While the bill’s proponents will protest that it includes language prohibiting the Secretary of Education from imposing national standards and tests on states or wading into curricula, similar language in current law has proved no impediment to the Obama Administration’s push for common national standards, through Race to the Top and other policy signals.
Moreover, the author’s intent is made clear in comments Harkin made to Education Week:
[Harkin] said the moment is right for a move away from achievement targets in part because nearly all states have signed onto the Common Core State Standards Initiative…. That means that all states will be striving to hit a high bar, he said….
“There’s a subtle shift here,” [said] Sen. Harkin. ‘We are moving into a partnership role with the states.”
But the shift is not so subtle. Any state that wants to receive money under Title 1 of the bill—the largest source of federal funding for K-12 education—will have to go along with the new Common Core standards regime.
Conservatives in Congress have offered alternatives to NCLB, as well as proposals to completely opt out of federal programs under the NCLB law.
The House Education and the Workforce Committee proposes eliminating and consolidating many of NCLB’s ineffective and duplicative programs and aims to provide considerable new flexibility to states with regards to how they can use federal education funding.
Meanwhile, in the House and Senate, the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) Act have been introduced, which would allow states to completely opt out of NCLB.
Instead of a ninth reauthorization of ESEA, policymakers should allow states to completely opt out of the prescriptive law altogether and direct dollars and decision making in a way that would best meet local needs.