Will Republicans’ Renewal of NCLB Make Common Core Permanent?

U.S. education policy has rarely enjoyed the level of attention it has received since Americans discovered the intricacies of the Common Core standards. An even larger issue than this education reform initiative is looming, however, one that could cement federal control of education in the states — whether in the form of Common Core or some other program.

Republican education committee chairs in both the House and the Senate have recently proposed their reauthorization drafts of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) which, currently, is known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). ESEA was originally passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his “War on Poverty,” and is essentially the most overreaching education law ever passed by Congress. The creation of the U.S. Department of Education (USED) by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 then bureaucratized education in the nation to a level never before seen.

In 2015, ESEA will likely be reauthorized, but will its new form permanently lock states into federal control of education even after many grassroots activists have been fighting Common Core’s intrusion?

Writing at the Heritage Foundation, Lindsey Burke notes that both the ESEA proposals of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, under Rep. John Kline (R-MN), and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, under Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), “fail to adequately reduce federal intervention in education, and as such, represent a missed opportunity for advancing conservative principles.”

The states’ dependence on federal funding for K-12 education has saddled them with the USED’s controlling policies regarding teacher certification, school assessment schedules, which programs states may spend funding on, and even the amount of money states must spend in order to obtain federal funds. The Obama administration — never missing an opportunity to exploit a problem — seized upon the frustration of the states in coping with these onerous NCLB regulations, and offered waivers from them in exchange for certain “conditions” which included “common” standards and aligned tests, massive state student data collection systems, and teacher accountability programs.

Federal intervention in public education has cost American taxpayers billions of dollars with nothing to show for it. Yet, with so many parents, teachers and citizens in general denouncing the Common Core standards, why are members of Congress not using the ESEA reauthorization opportunity to rein in federal control?

Though Rep. Kline has been eager to address ESEA, it was not until Republicans gained control of the Senate that the project had a chance to gain some traction. For his part, Sen. Alexander has said a reauthorization of ESEA is a “top priority,” and that his goal is to rein in federal control so as not to allow a “national school board,” but the proposals presented thus far leave much to be desired by grassroots activists intent on keeping education in the hands of the states, local school districts, and — above all — parents.

Burke explains the problem:

The current reauthorization proposals in Congress largely punt on any effort to eliminate programs or cut spending. Through the decades and various reauthorizations of the ESEA, dozens of competitive grant programs have accumulated. In fact, some 80 programs are authorized under NCLB today, more than 60 of which are niche competitive grant programs. These programs create a significant compliance burden for state and local leaders, who must apply for program funding, monitor federal notices and regulations, and demonstrate compliance to the U.S. Department of Education. They also represent one of the primary ways in which Washington has extended its overreach into local school policy.

In a statement asserting their concerns with the ESEA reauthorization drafts, Burke joined researchers Williamson “Bill” Evers of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a former U.S. assistant secretary of education; Theodor Rebarber, CEO of AccountabilityWorks, Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita at University of Arkansas, and Ze’ev Wurman, former senior policy adviser with the U.S. Department of Education.

“The current drafts, both the Senate and the House versions, do not return authority to the states and localities or empower parents,” these experts assert. “The ESEA has evolved from what was described at the outset in 1965 as a measure to help children from low-income families into an instrument of testing mandates and federal control of public K-12 education and, increasingly, of private education as well.”

It is clear that Burke and her colleagues are concerned ESEA will not be reauthorized in a manner that empowers parents as guardians of their children’s education, or states and local school districts. They also want Congress to abandon the Obama administration’s idea of high schools as “college-prep factories,” and, instead, get back to serving their main purpose of preparing young people “for American citizenship and to fulfill their individual potential as they see fit.”

The education researchers assert the ESEA reauthorization should do nothing less than eliminate mandates, eliminate programs, allow Title I money to follow a child to the public or private school of his choice, and prohibit national standards, assessments, and curricula.

In particular, the colleagues observe that Alexander’s ESEA draft contains objectionable language that includes an assurance that states have “state standards aligned with entrance requirements, without the need for academic remediation, for an institution of higher education in the State.”

Similarly, another problematic phrase in Alexander’s draft provides that state assessments “are the same academic assessments used to measure the achievement of all students.”

“Above all, any reauthorization of ESEA should take meaningful steps toward curtailing federal overreach into local school policy,” the experts write. “Reauthorization should roll back the host of programs and mandates that burden states and local boards, and allow states, school districts and charter schools to opt out completely, and allow school policy to be set at the local level.”


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