Obama's Last Chance on School Reform?

Congress must work to develop legislation with true bipartisan support.

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First grade teacher Lynda Jensen teaches her class of 30 children Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, at the Willow Glenn Elementary School in San Jose, Calif. Classes in California's public schools are getting bigger. To save money on teacher salaries, school districts across the state have gotten into the habit of putting more children in classrooms and then seeking retroactive approval from the California State Board of Education. Although bigger classes are unpopular with teachers and parents, research on the link between class size and learning has been inconclusive.

The start of the school year also marks the end of the congressional recess. And this fall, Congress's education "to do" list includes updating the federal statute governing America's public schools. If Congress doesn't act this year, there may not be any action for another four years (owing to the political pressures connected to the midterm elections in 2014 and the presidential election in 2016). With the left and the right agreeing that reform of the law is long overdue, there's an urgent need for action this fall.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was enacted in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, as part of the War on Poverty. The law sets the parameters for the bulk of federal funding that goes to states and school districts. The 2001 rewrite of the law, No Child Left Behind, focused on accountability for closing the achievement gaps between rich and poor students, as well as between minority and nonminority students. Though the goals underpinning the law were bold and aspirational, they required a fundamental shift in thinking that the U.S. Department of Education simply didn't have the manpower, time or resources to invest in.

As time went on, pressure to tweak the law was heightened and as a consequence of Congress not acting to update the law, the U.S. Department of Education has granted waivers to 34 states and the District of Columbia (through the 2013-2014 school year), creating a patchwork of less-than-transparent accountability systems that may, or may not, be holding schools accountable for improving the achievement of all groups of students.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

So where does that leave us? To echo the words of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, "America deserves a better law." The good news is that we have seen some forward progress, with the House passing its version of the reauthorization and the Senate looking towards floor consideration later this fall. Unfortunately, both bills are partisan, with only Republicans supporting the House bill, and only Democrats voting to move the Senate bill to the floor. A recent survey of Washington insiders by Whiteboard Advisors found 85 percent believe No Child Left Behind will not be reauthorized until after January 2015. In other words, everyone is pretty jaded – they've seen this movie before and know how it will end.

I happen to be one of the jaded ones but here are three things that could change the direction of this conversation to the benefit of America's schoolchildren:

  1. Despite all the talk of the law's bipartisan appeal, its enactment was a byproduct of the Bush administration making it a priority. No Republican would have voted for the bill had it not been for the president asking his party to support it. President Obama can play a similar role in pushing his party to lock arms with Republicans in forging an alliance that would trade some elements of federal accountability for parental choice.
  2. ESEA includes a host of titles and support for activities that are not connected to the accountability framework that has proven so difficult to reauthorize. The smaller components in the law include funding for programs like charter schools, after-school learning communities, and other programs that are not as controversial. Congress and the administration can move these provisions (which also need some tweaks and adjustments) on their own and offer the country some hope that bipartisanship is possible.
  3. I am a big fan of using the bully pulpit. Secretary Duncan is doing just that right now with his "back to school" bus tour focused on promoting the merits of early childhood education. If the Elementary and Secondary Education Act can't be reauthorized now, the Secretary should focus on putting in place the infrastructure, and building the constituency, needed to advance reauthorization. It's often forgotten that the building blocks of No Child Left Behind were forged in previous attempts to rewrite the law during the Clinton administration, and much of the thought leadership undergirding it was promulgated before President Bush came into office. Since so many Republican governors and state education chiefs are aligned with the administration's education agenda, marketing their stories and elevating their call around the need for reform would be an important step on the road to improving the federal investment in our nation's schools.
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