In assuming the speaker’s chair, Paul Ryan shouldered the role of unifying a party divided. The House GOP’s “establishment” wing wants to demonstrate that Republicans can be trusted to address kitchen-table concerns and govern responsibly, while the Tea Party wing is intent on rolling back a national government run amok and President Obama’s troubling legacy of executive overreach. Recent history suggests that it can be difficult to unite these two agendas, but one such opportunity fell into Ryan’s lap when House and Senate negotiators agreed on the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) — the long-overdue overhaul of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act.
The ESSA should easily clear the Senate, but its prospects in the House are less certain, where it would benefit mightily from Ryan’s support. It deserves that support: The compromise is far from perfect, but it’s good for students and starkly reverses more than a decade of counterproductive, creeping federal micromanagement of schools.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB), while lauded at the time of its passage 15 year ago, opened the door to bureaucratic tomfoolery and executive freelancing. President George W. Bush entered office seeking to introduce basic tenets of transparency and accountability to schools, but assembling a bipartisan majority required bargaining with Democratic senator Ted Kennedy, who insisted on getting Washington involved in “fixing” low-performing schools.
NCLB required 100 percent of the nation’s students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Any school that missed the target would be subject to a series of federally mandated interventions. The results were predictable enough: a maniacal focus on reading and math tests, scandals around the manipulation of test results, widespread school “failure,” and states begging Washington for relief.
As the law’s mandated sanctions threatened to ensnare three-quarters or more of the nation’s schools, the Obama administration offered states a deal that they truly couldn’t refuse: Uncle Sam would waive the utopian targets and federal penalties — but only if states agreed to adopt the Obama education-reform agenda. Thus, NCLB opened the door to ham-fisted, unprecedented federal meddling on behalf of more rigorous teacher evaluation that turned a promising idea into a counterproductive, test-fueled caricature. States scrambled to adopt new and longer standardized tests in order to satisfy federal demands regarding the Common Core and teacher evaluation systems. This led to backlash against testing by parents and teachers nationwide.
Last month, these concerns were validated by a new study from the Council of Great City Schools, which found that a typical student now takes 112 tests in 12 years. In the eighth grade, students in urban districts spend 25 hours sitting for standardized tests, not to mention dozens of additional hours preparing. Having fueled the testing mania, Obama took to Facebook to call for new federal mandates to limit testing — using the failures of federal policy as an excuse to further extend Washington’s reach.
All of this has not helped students or schools. In October, the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the semi-annual “nation’s report card,” showed the first across-the-board declines ever recorded. America’s two-decade streak of improvement on math was broken, and reading scores fell for the first time in a decade. It’s impossible to draw a causal line from Obama’s policies to this drop, but it certainly belies the administration’s claim to know “what works.”
It’s long past time to fix NCLB. In July, the Senate passed a bill with an overwhelming bipartisan majority, 81-17, but the House bill faced tougher sledding. President Obama, perturbed that the House bill allowed federal funds to follow students to charter schools and got the U.S. Department of Education totally out of the school-management business, issued a veto threat. He found unlikely allies in members of the House Freedom Caucus, who opposed anything that didn’t allow states to retain their federal education funds while opting out of federal education law. The House bill ultimately squeaked through 218-213 on a party-line vote.
The ESSA represents a vast improvement over the status quo. It promises to get the federal government out of the business of telling states which schools are failing and micromanaging school improvement. It ends the ludicrous 100 percent proficiency mandate. It contains unprecedented language restricting the authority of the secretary of education, representing a bipartisan repudiation of the Obama administration’s feckless legacy. At the same time, it reasonably retains NCLB’s minimal requirement that states test students once per year in reading and math in grades three through eight, and again in high school (and in science once in elementary, middle, and high school). Stripped of federal mandates governing accountability and school improvement, this testing framework can help promote transparency without the resulting test craziness.
Conservative reservations are easily understood, given how Bush’s compromises opened the door to Obama’s executive freelancing. And again, the bill is far from perfect. For example, it drops a provision of the House bill that would have allowed federal Title I funds to follow low-income students to public schools of their choice, it includes far more nods to federal oversight of state accountability than is ideal, and it codifies existing spending as a small new federal pre-K program — raising concerns that this will open the door to further federal meddling in pre-K. Further, the legislative endgame appears unfortunately rushed, with the House vote scheduled to occur mere days after the final bill is published.
But taken as a whole, the ESSA will free students and schools from the grip of crude directives and ease a well-intended but destructive obsession with reading and math tests. It restores a principled, limited federal role in schooling. It will take leadership to make that case, but Speaker Ryan has a rare opportunity to unite the two wings of his party while demonstrating what conservative lawmaking can accomplish for the nation’s kids.
Frederick M. Hess is Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies at American Enterprise Institute