States Rights at Heart of New 'No Child Left Behind' Debate

Critics say the bill would leave minorities behind, others say it is still government overreach.

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But some see the level of discretion states would get under this bill as a dangerous backslide to the days before No Child Left Behind.

"Times change and we need to make some improvements, but this is a wholesale retreat against accountability for every child," says former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who served under President George W. Bush. Spellings decries the lack of specific targets for achievement and accountability that were the foundation of No Child Left Behind, legislation she helped form. Those accountability provisions, she says, were what forced the states to look out for disadvantaged and minority students. "I think they should name the law, 'No Superintendent Left Whining,'" she says. "It makes the noise go away; takes the pressure off."

For those worried Congress may roll back the gains in serving low-income and minority students made over the past decade, the lack of a teacher evaluation requirement in the bill is a huge drawback. Critics like Spellings and former D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee decry that the evaluations would be incentivized through a grant program rather than mandated, as they are under current law.

Harkin acknowledged Wednesday that the teacher evaluation provision was dropped to make the bill more bipartisan, giving it a better chance to survive committee negotiations.

Whether states "do a good job with their teacher evaluation systems, or whether they even implement them at all is going to be a matter of chance," says policy analyst Anne Hyslop of Education Sector, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. Hyslop adds that the bill would mean states won't have to ensure teachers at low-income schools are on par with those at high-income schools. "And states and local governments certainly don't have the best track record on equity issues," she says.

[GOP: Obama Circumventing Congress on No Child Left Behind.]

But dropping the teacher evaluation piece was a win for those who hope states will be granted maximum trust and flexibility. "If you're going to take promising reform like [teacher evaluation] and turn it into a federal mandate, you're going to kill it," says Michael Petrilli, executive vice president at the right-leaning Fordham Institute. "You're going to have states who have not bought into that vision who do it only out of compliance, and they're going to do it poorly."

Petrilli believes states have advanced over the past 10 to 15 years to earn the trust to do such things on their own, and he says they would likely do it better without a federal mandate. "Partly because of No Child Left Behind, you see the world is a lot different now. You've got bona fide reformers in place in many states," he says, adding that since each state is very different, those state- and school-level reformers should be trusted to try their own methods. And with most school problems, proven over-arching solutions don't exist yet, he explains. "We need to have the humility to say we don't know, and therefore let's let it play out differently in each state and learn from one another," he says, "instead of trying to fight these symbolic battles in D.C. and tie everybody's hands to one approach."

But those who think the new proposal is worse than current law, like Spellings, take comfort Congress's recent inability to move forward on policies that don't threaten a government shutdown or credit rating drop. Spellings remembers the weeks spent negotiating No Child Left Behind in the Senate before it passed in 2001. "Do I think that there's going to be multiple weeks of floor time devoted to this law in the near term? I wouldn't bet on it," she says. "That's the good news, though."

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