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Rhetoric of ‘Bipartisan’ Every Student Succeeds Act Can’t Mask Its Federal Control of Education

Establishment Washington Republicans could not say enough this past week about how the 1,061-page Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) reduces the federal government’s role in education and that it eliminates the fed’s coercion of states to stick with the unpopular Common Core standards. Perhaps most significant to these Republicans is that the bill was a self-proclaimed model of “bipartisanship.”

With the demise of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the signing into law of the ESSA, some Americans could be swayed into believing the U.S. Department of Education had practically been dismantled. This is hardly the case.

“In fact, ESSA will have pretty much the opposite effect,” writes Jane Robbins, senior fellow at American Principles Project, at The Pulse 2016. “It lays out particular requirements for state standards and uses code language throughout that gives the federal government the tools to pressure the states to stick with Common Core rather than risking their federal money by adopting something better.”

“It maintains the federally dictated testing regimen and requires states to implement assessments that are expensive, that have been proven to be ineffective and unworkable, and that operate not by assessing students’ academic knowledge but rather by measuring their attitudes and dispositions,” she continues.

Contrary to what Republican leaders such as Sen. Lamar Alexander are asserting – that the law provides for a more “limited” role for the federal government in education – ESSA cements into law a new federal preschool program, so that what used to be the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), of which the ESSA is now the latest version, now extends federal control to preschool as well.

The new law also provides for President Obama’s special project known as the “21st Century Community Learning Centers.” Robbins explains:

[This] means that schools will be expanded to replace family and church as the center of every child’s life, offering myriad “services” including mental-health programs. Few things should alarm parents more than the prospect of the government’s assessing their child’s mental health and proceeding to fix any problem the government claims to find. But this is what the Republican Congress has given us.

The fact that Obama signed the bill the day after it passed the Senate, referring to it as a “Christmas miracle” of bipartisanship; that it was supported in a floor speech by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; that its advocates include the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the owners of the copyright of the Common Core standards – the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers – may say it all.

Coming from the left, The Atlantic also asserts the D.C. rhetoric on the ESSA is “bloated.” While NCLB had clearly become a bureaucratic boondoggle, and its death “is certainly cause for excitement,” the publication asserts, “In reality, schools may not see much on-the-ground change.”

The Atlantic continues:

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia already have waivers from No Child Left Behind’s “most troublesome and restrictive requirements”—flexibility granted several years ago by the Obama administration in exchange for states’ commitment to “setting their own higher, more honest standards for student success.” This means that most of the country’s students have already been learning under a system that eschewed much of No Child Left Behind’s most obvious and onerous aspects—and looks a lot like the system envisioned in Every Student Succeeds. States with waivers were essentially allowed to set their own goals for raising achievement, come up with their own strategies for turning around struggling schools, and design their own methods of measuring student progress.

In fact, however, states must still have their standards approved by the U.S. Education Secretary under ESSA – which still sounds like a substantial amount of federal control.

The New Hampshire-based Cornerstone Policy Research observes as well that federal control of private schools is also provided for in the ESSA. Page 186 of the law states:

(3) EQUITY.—

(A) IN GENERAL.—Educational services and other benefits for such private school children shall be equitable in comparison to services and other benefits for public school children participating under this part, and shall be provided in a timely manner.

(B) OMBUDSMAN.— To help ensure such equity for such private school children, teachers, and other educational personnel, the State educational agency involved shall designate an ombudsman to monitor and enforce the requirements of this part.’’;

(i) IN GENERAL.— Expenditures for educational services and other benefits to eligible private school children shall be equal to the proportion of funds allocated to participating school attendance areas based on the number of children from low- income families who attend private schools…

In addition, an entire section of the law, beginning on page 833, is titled, “Participation by Private School Children and Teachers:”

(A) IN GENERAL.— Educational services and other benefits provided under this section for private school children, teachers, and other educational personnel shall be equitable in comparison to services and other benefits for public school children, teachers, and other educational personnel participating in the program and shall be provided in a timely manner.

‘(B) OMBUDSMAN.—To help ensure equitable services are provided to private school children, teachers, and other educational personnel under this section, the State educational agency involved shall direct the ombudsman…

Cornerstone notes that while the provision for private schools is intended to channel federal funds to private schools, “We know that with federal dollars comes federal control.”

“We’re still waiting for a candidate to offer full-voiced leadership on the education crisis (which is a constitutional crisis) in our country,” Robbins concludes. “Who will lead the ‘Repeal ESSA’ campaign?”

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