Lawmakers: New U.S. education law means a return to local control of schools

States and school districts will hold more power under the new education law approved Wednesday by the U.S. Senate.
States and school districts will hold more power under the new education law approved Wednesday by the U.S. Senate. Tri-City Herald

States and school districts will hold more power under the new education law approved Wednesday by the U.S. Senate, but some elements will remain of the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act it replaces.

The bill passed the Senate 85-12 and previously was approved in the House of Representatives. The White House said President Barack Obama will sign it Dec. 10.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington was one of the key architects of the bill, formally called the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“I fought hard to break through the gridlock and dysfunction in Congress to get this done, because I heard from too many families that the old law simply wasn’t working for them,” Murray said.

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who leads the Senate Education Committee, called the legislation a “Christmas present” for 50 million children across the country.

Students will still be required to take federally mandated reading and math exams under the new law, a vestige of No Child Left Behind. And Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who missed the vote, said it doesn’t go far enough in removing federal intrusion into education.

But politicians from both sides of the aisle and many other education advocates have lauded the act, which encourages reduced testing of students, limits high-stakes consequences for struggling schools and will benefit preschool programs, homeless students and those learning English.

It also means the restoration of $40 million to the control of school districts in Washington state. Last year, when the state lost its waiver from No Child Left Behind, school districts had to set aside 20 percent of certain federal dollars for third-party tutoring services for students with the highest needs to access.

That meant the loss of $300,000 for the Richland School District, roughly $678,000 in Kennewick and about $1 million in Pasco.

“With the passage of this act, we’re eager to leave the old and flawed federal law behind,” said Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association. “This is a great opportunity for parents, educators and school supporters to work together and provide the top-quality public education every child deserves."

Among the new law’s features:

▪  Elimination of the federal mandate that teacher evaluations be tied to student performance on the statewide tests. Teacher advocates criticized that requirement, saying it promoted over-testing and didn’t contribute to learning.

▪  The federal government will not be allowed to mandate or provide incentives to states to adopt specific academic standards, such as the Common Core State Standards in math and language arts. The standards have been under attack, largely from conservative circles but increasingly from the left.

▪  More access to preschool for low- and middle-income families through new grants provided from an existing fund to support state early education initiatives.

“We will be able to more effectively leverage these investments in our classrooms by restoring lost federal funding, enhancing our work on early learning and programs that support at-risk schools and students, and improving our ability to recruit quality teachers,” said Gov. Jay Inslee.

▪  State governments will now have to design their own goals for schools, including how student progress is measured and how to fix schools where students chronically underperform. States will be required to intervene at schools in the lowest-performing 5 percent, in high schools with high dropout rates and schools with ongoing achievement gaps.

▪  The U.S. Department of Education will no longer be allowed to tell states and local districts how to assess school and teacher performance. That means states would no longer have to seek waivers for exemptions from those assessment standards in order to preserve federal funding, a process that led to Washington state losing control of tens of millions of dollars in funding last year.

There are risks that states may set goals too low or not act quickly enough, said Daria Hall, vice president for government affairs and communication at the Education Trust.

But she also said, “Those risks are also really opportunities for states to really step up to the plate and be leaders.”

Two other presidential hopefuls also missed the Senate vote on the law — Republican Marco Rubio of Florida and Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont.