Education overhaul nixes No Child Left Behind

Education | Legislation returns power to the states, but not enough for some conservatives
by J.C. Derrick
Posted 12/09/15, 01:35 pm

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Senate on Wednesday passed a sweeping education overhaul that grants states more control but leaves many conservatives wishing it had done more.

The Senate passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with a bipartisan majority, 85-12, days after the House approved the same compromise bill on a 359-64 vote. President Barack Obama is expected to sign it.

The legislation replaces the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002, which expired in 2007 but has remained in effect in the absence of congressional action. 

The bill would keep a key feature of NCLB: federally mandated statewide reading and math exams in grades three to eight and one such test in high school. But it would encourage states to set caps on the time students spend on testing, and it would diminish the high stakes associated with those exams for underperforming schools.

“I have decided, like a president named Reagan once advised, that I will take 80 percent of what I want and fight for the other 20 percent on another day,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who was President Ronald Reagan’s education secretary and helped negotiate the compromise bill. 

The measure would substantially limit the federal government's role, barring the Education Department from telling states and local districts how to assess school and teacher performance. Instead, states and districts would come up with their own goals for schools, design their own measures of achievement and progress, and decide independently how to turn around struggling schools.

States would still be required to intervene in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, in high schools with high dropout rates, and in schools with stubborn achievement gaps—a provision Democrats pushed.

A major Republican-backed provision is ending the waivers the Obama administration gave to more than 40 states — exemptions granted around the more onerous parts of NCLB when it became clear that requirements such as having all students proficient in reading and math by 2014 would not be met. The waivers gave extraordinary power to the Education Department, which has had leverage to pressure states into adopting or keeping the controversial Common Core education standards.

To address Common Core, the bill says the federal government may not mandate or give states incentives to adopt or maintain any particular set of academic standards. (The administration previously offered grants through its Race to the Top program for states that adopted its standards.)

Some conservative advocates, including experts at the American Enterprise Institute, touted the bill as a good step toward more state and local control. Tillie Elvrum, president of, a group advocating for school choice, said the bill will help empower parents: “This bill is a major step forward in returning education decisions back to parents and states, by allowing for greater flexibility to pursue more student-centered accountability.”

Other groups, such as The Heritage Foundation and Eagle Forum, argued the bill didn’t do enough, noting it increases spending, continues federally mandated testing, and starts a new pre-K grant program.

“NCLB poured billions of dollars into dozens of programs without actually improving education outcomes,” said Glyn Wright, executive director of Eagle Forum. “ESSA spends more money on a slightly smaller number of ineffective programs. … Our public schools wallow in mediocrity after decades of outsized federal intervention, and ESSA offers little to inspire hope that this situation will change.”

Conservatives also took issue with the five-year reauthorization, which means the next president won’t be able to write a new law until a possible second term in office. 

Many Republican lawmakers said they wanted the bill to move education policy further in a conservative direction, but they said it would be pointless to pass a partisan bill that Obama would veto. 

The legislation preserves current language exempting homeschoolers and private schools that do not accept federal money—once a contentious point of education law.

“This is a major victory for homeschool freedom, and we applaud Congress for retaining and reauthorizing this essential language,” wrote William Estrada, director of Federal Relations for the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).

In 1994, lawmakers attempted to require certification for every teacher at every school, including home educators. Such a provision wasn’t considered this time, illustrating the growing influence and success of the homeschooling community.

HSLDA and the American Association of Christian Schools remained neutral on the legislation, but they endorsed certain provisions and noted the overall effect is to move some control away from the federal government.

Estrada lamented that the legislation didn’t do more: “It is disappointing that Congress failed to restore fully the constitutional principle of limited federal powers and leave more educational decisions to states and local school districts. HSLDA strongly believes that the federal government has no constitutional role in education.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. 

J.C. Derrick

J.C. is WORLD’s deputy chief content officer and WORLD Radio’s managing editor based in Dallas. Follow J.C. on Twitter @jcderrick1.

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