Last week’s long-delayed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 – now dubbed Every Student Succeeds (ESSA) — demonstrated what our deadlocked politics can do when the stars align: get rid of a bad law that nobody wants around anymore.
With No Child Left Behind (NCLB) dumped at the curb, many are proclaiming the new law as the biggest return of education policy to state and local officials in 25 years.
While many local and state leaders may be relieved to no longer be governed by the unworkable No Child Left Behind, replacing one harmful law with another that is only marginally better essentially diminishes the federal vision of a more equal and excellent American education.
At a moment in our history when we confront significant economic inequalities, distressing racial tensions, increasing segregation and crucial questions about immigration, the passage of tepid legislation that addresses none of these issues is not a cause for celebration.
Fifty years ago, Congress and President Johnson enacted the original Elementary and Secondary Education act in an effort to ensure that poor students had access to the kind of education that might lift them out of poverty. Since that time, the federal role has increased. Federal, state, and local governments now share power over public education, but the relationship is often tense.
During the 50 years since the enactment of the 1965 law, the federal-state-local balance of education power has worked best when the feds have insisted that all students, regardless of race, home language, or disability, have equal access to a high quality education, and the states and locals have delivered that education through their working partnership.
The question now is whether the new law supplies the right mix of federal insistence and state and local capacity.
Recently, we gathered together political scientists, economists, and education policy researchers to consider the 50-year track record of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, asking them what has gone right, gone wrong, and remains to be done. Our collective findings, to be published in RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, tell a story in which the federal government’s influence on public education is both powerfully transformative and frustratingly partial and incomplete.
The new law strives to preserve important elements of federal accountability structure as it shifts the content standards and consequences of accountability back to states and districts. This frees them of some federal requirements, but what will they do with this freedom? Some states may pioneer new approaches to educational quality and equity, but historically the states’ record on innovation is mixed. Civil rights advocates rightfully worry that without federal pressure, state policies will exacerbate educational inequalities rather than redress them.
Moreover, it is clear that the new law neglects several reforms the nation needs to promote greater access to more equal schools. The scholars we gathered highlighted several important federal policy innovations that would strengthen U.S. schools.
For example, scandalous inequities in school financing persist (despite numerous state court decisions), both within states and across states. The federal government could, in its Title I formula, establish incentives for states to adopt more equitable financing formulas. Also at a time when U.S. schools have reversed historical progress towards racial integration, the federal government can do more to support diverse schools through targeted grant programs.
The federal government could do much more to build the capacities of teachers and invest in fundamental research that improves classroom instruction. Instead, the new law is actually reducing the flow of highly trained teachers into poor and minority classrooms by lowering the standards for teacher certification, charterizing teacher education programs, and allowing venture philanthropists, not scholars, to determine what works for teacher preparation.
The nation needs to address the growing linguistic sophistication of our students and recognize that a multi-lingual citizenry is a more capable and productive citizenry. Title III of the new law provides less money on a per pupil basis than No Child Left Behind did and does not encourage students to become fully bilingual in English and their home language. Clearly, with over 20 percent of U.S. students now born abroad, our ability to teach new languages and preserve existing ones needs to improve.
Finally, we have to invest in a federal capacity to assist state and local governments’ efforts to improve teaching. Ensuring educational equality requires a federal bureaucracy that has the skills and the flexibility to build, in turn, capacities at the state and local level.
The new law removes No Child Left Behind’s unworkable and unsustainable structure. At the same time, the new law’s passage reminds us that the evolution of the federal role in education is never complete.
Indeed, the new law expires in only four years, so before the next presidential election we will have another opportunity to redefine the federal role in education. Maybe we’ll get it right then.
Drs. David A. Gamson, Kathryn A. McDermott and Douglas S. Reed are the editors of RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences.