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For the sake of democracy, hold schools accountable!

The education bill that brings American families more than a name change

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Degree of  Interest

Sixth grade students Miracle Roberson, left, Darion James, and Brianetay Martin, right, read during literature intervention class at ReNEW SciTech Academy, a charter school in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Sixth grade students Miracle Roberson, left, Darion James, and Brianetay Martin, right, read during literature intervention class at ReNEW SciTech Academy, a charter school in New Orleans.

Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – It just doesn’t fly off the page, but the U.S. House of Representatives’ passage of the country’s highest schooling law is the biggest education news since No Child Left Behind passed under George W. Bush in 2001.

Most expect the U.S. Senate to pass the measure and President Obama to sign the bill known as the Every Student Succeeds Act into law before the end of the year. As Obama’s second term winds down, in Secretary Arne Duncan’s last days, this new act brings something new to families besides a name change.

Children and families will benefit from the much-needed fixes to No Child Left Behind. Expect to see more money for early childhood education, higher academic standards and disruption of the lowest performing schools. However, the greatest benefit may be the evidence that a divided Congress can actually generate a bipartisan piece of legislation. But will the federal spirit of bipartisanship be received better in states than the federal interventions under the 2001 law?

Related: Proposed education bill clears U.S. House; would give states more power, feds less

It will certainly be harder to blame so-called federal overreach for the underachievement of our kids in the future.

Learning isn’t confined to a school and it certainly doesn’t begin at five years of age. But that’s how our laws organize education. Academic support is needed before kindergarten, especially in this everybody works modern world. The new federal law recognizes that lifelong learning begins at birth. So for the first time the new law dedicates 250 million for pre-K programs available to those who are aligned to the early childhood standards in the federally funded Head Start program.

In addition, the rewrite mandates college and career ready standards. A shameful result from the old framework was that states lowered the bar to improve graduation rates and to prove growth to the feds. Remember the federal study in 2009 that showed how nearly a third of all states lowered their standards in order to avoid federal sanctions?

State of the states

The rewrite stays in the war on poverty by demanding that states intervene on the bottom 5 percent of schools based on a preponderance – 51 percent – of academic factors including test scores and graduation rates. For those who’ve decried the weightiness of academic factors under prior rating systems, the rewrite leaves room for states to use other indicators of student achievement and school quality to color their accountability systems in ways they deem fit.

We seem to always need reminders that the education law of the land was originally a civil rights bill. States historically have had tremendous amounts of latitude in readying black and poor students for participation in the political, economic and civic life of their communities. But the bill exists because states previously allowed black and poor students to learn in under-resourced schools. In the process, we created a tradition of blaming black folk and their communities for underachievement.

Holding schools accountable mainly (but not exclusively) along academic factors matters because if students aren’t ready for at least two years of college, then second-class citizenry becomes a given. College has become as basic for a democracy as primary and secondary school (include pre-K in the mix as well). For the sake of democracy, hold schools accountable.

Related: Improving lackluster U.S. high schools: Why it’s not too little or too late

The vote proves that a divided Congress can reach policy agreements on education issues that I wouldn’t advise bringing up during holiday family dinners.

Before the next presidential debate airs, governors and mayors should leap through this new political window of opportunity to pitch and deliver pragmatic interventions as opposed to ideological ones. No one likes reform being done to them. Removing “the one-size-fits-all adequate yearly progress federal accountability system” and replacing it with state inspired interventions is an invitation for local control and inclusion. In addition, the rewrite moves the target of accountability off of the “federal overreach” excuse and on the people in the districts that are actually responsible for delivering schooling.

As a result, governors should be less distracted by bureaucrats from D.C. or some political action committee from thousands of miles away to be better able to toil with their political neighbors from across the aisle and down the street. This is great news for state governments.

Related: Will the Supreme Court strike down affirmative action in education once and for all?

For instance in Louisiana, what helped John Bel Edwards get elected as Louisiana’s next governor will not be the same as what gets him reelected. When the feds, families or poverty can’t be blamed for school performance, Edwards and other governors must find effective interventions and people (wherever they may come from) to survive politically.

The rewrite provides the room to scrub out many of the trendy and largely ineffective approaches that came along in ideological reform packages. Let’s face it; the value added modeling (VAM) stuff used to hold teachers accountable was fueled more by finding fault than science.

Related: The problem some college students face alongside finals: getting enough to eat

Edwards and others must leverage the rewrite and their newfound powers in ways that delivers for their voting base – teachers, unions and school boards – as well as families whom did and didn’t vote for him.

Imagine that. State executives actually working to gain votes from their residents from performance rather than a bitter national party, federal sanctions or educational fads.

The rewrite may not completely do that, but passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act makes it more likely.

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is the former founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Previously, Perry worked in… See Archive