Last week, conservatives scored a smashing educational triumph: Congress passed and President Obama signed a bill replacing the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) ends the pretense that Washington bureaucrats should tell states how to judge school performance, how to intervene in schools, or which teachers are qualified. Reversing years of lawless freelancing by Obama’s Department of Education, ESSA imposes a raft of new prohibitions on the federal Department of Education while broadly reflecting recommendations sketched by conservative education reformers in such outlets as the Conservative Reform Network’s Room to Grow and National Affairs.
True, conservatives have gotten used to getting rolled. The Bush administration taught them to regard “bipartisan deal” as a euphemism for “we gave away the store.” ESSA’s critics lament the codification of a new federal pre-K program, the failure to more fully restrain federal micro-management, and much else. And the Obama administration has long overstepped statutory bounds while working to extend Washington’s reach. Against that backdrop, compromises are unappealing and paper assurances can seem unreliable.
The result is a spate of articles in such places as The Christian Post and Breitbart that give two thumbs down to this solid (though imperfect) conservative victory (under such headlines as “Rhetoric of ‘Bipartisan’ Every Student Succeeds Act Can’t Mask Its Federal Control of Education” and “Republican Congress Thwarts Americans, Passes Obama-Backed Education Bill”). This dejected view, fueled by Obama-administration spin, is worth correcting. If conservatives imagine that they’ve already lost, they’ll have little interest in policing the rule-writing and implementation that will determine ESSA’s ultimate impact. Given the Obama administration’s less-than-impressive record of respecting statutes, how ESSA is interpreted and applied will matter greatly.
Indeed, the Obama administration has been scrambling to recast ESSA as a win for those eager to continue the Washington-centric ways of NCLB. Don’t be fooled. A close look shows that the White House is trying to distort or ignore the law’s clear language.
The White House claims that ESSA okays Obama’s efforts to promote the Common Core because it “affirms the path taken by 48 states and the District of Columbia” to retain “challenging academic content standards” (which is Obama-ese for “Common Core”).
In fact, ESSA gets Washington entirely out of the standards business. Title I, Part A, Sec. 1111 of the law declares, “The Secretary shall not attempt to influence, incentivize, or coerce State adoption of the Common Core State Standards . . . or any other academic standards common to a significant number of States, or assessments tied to such standards.” Title VIII, Part F, Sec. 8526A stipulates, “No officer or employee of the Federal Government shall condition or incentivize the receipt of any grant, contract, or cooperative agreement, the receipt of any priority or preference . . . upon a State, local educational agency, or school’s adoption or implementation of specific instructional content, academic standards and assessments, curricula, or program of instruction.” The Common Core is mentioned nine times in ESSA — each time in terms of rejecting or prohibiting federal coercion or influence.
The administration claims that ESSA allows Washington to continue micro-managing states to “assure” that “every child is entitled to get a great teacher” and that states are “intervening in low-performing schools.” Somewhat ominously, the administration insists, “Moreover, the Department of Education has the authority it needs to ensure that states carry out their responsibilities.”
ESSA does require states to develop accountability systems and devise strategies for addressing low-performing schools, but how they choose to do so is wholly up to state and local leaders. For instance, Title I, Part A, Sec. 1111 requires only that states “notify each local educational agency . . . in which any subgroup of students is consistently underperforming” and “ensure [that] such local educational agency provides notification” to schools. How states choose to proceed from there is up to them. The provision goes on to make clear that “nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize or permit the Secretary . . . to promulgate any rule or regulation on the development or implementation of the state wide accountability system.” The law makes clear that the Secretary cannot “add new requirements,” “add new criteria,” condition approval of state plans on their willingness to “add” or “delete” elements, or “prescribe numeric long-term goals or measurements of interim progress.”
The White House claims that ESSA “includes initiatives modeled after the Administration’s programs to: Establish or expand access to high-quality, state-funded preschool . . . building from the Administration’s Preschool Development Grants program.” At first blush, that sounds like a pretty significant expansion of the federal reach.
In fact, the preschool provision only codifies an existing program at its existing funding level. Title IX, Part B, Sec. 9212 specifies that preschool development grants will merely help states “develop, update, or implement a strategic plan that facilitates collaboration and coordination” of early-childhood programs. There are no funds for extending federally funded preschool provisions. Moreover, the same section also makes clear that “nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize . . . any criterion for grants” relating to “early learning and development guidelines, standards, or specific assessments”; “specific measures or indicators of quality early learning and care”; “curriculum, programs of instruction, or instructional content”; “teacher and staff qualifications and salaries”; “class sizes and ratios of children to instructional staff”; “the scope of programs, including length of program day and length of program year”; and “any aspect or parameter of a teacher, principal, other school leader, or staff evaluation system.” The fact that the administration is bragging about being allowed to fund state “strategic planning” processes for preschool serves mostly to highlight how little it won.
ESSA is a significant win for students and schools. It shows how conservative principles can help address practical concerns about things like over-testing and goofy federal requirements. The law retains NCLB’s commitment to transparency while getting the federal government out of the business of trying to tell states how to gauge teacher quality, evaluate school performance, or “fix” schools. These changes represent a far healthier vision of what the federal government should be doing and can do well. More broadly, ESSA does something exquisitely rare — it actively shrinks the federal footprint, in perhaps the sharpest reversal of federal ambitions since the welfare-reform act of 1996. Conservatives should properly value that victory and now must work to ensure that it is faithfully reflected in the law’s execution.
Frederick M. Hess is a Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies at American Enterprise Institute (AEI)