ESEA reauthorization continues a long federal retreat from American classrooms

Although many groups have lauded the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) because it abolishes the “hated No Child Left Behind” (NCLB), ESSA is less a “repeal” than another step in the federal retreat from the classroom and a testament to the continuing education exceptionalism in American politics. Not only does ESSA grant states and districts the power to measure, identify, and remedy academic inequality — the very governments that the original authors of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) distrusted in 1965 — but the bill has brought supporters from both parties, just as NCLB did in 2001.

The advance and retreat of federal oversight of education

The original ESEA of 1965 shared its deep suspicion of state and district governments with other civil rights legislation and litigation of that decade. And so, by 1972, ESEA required states and districts spend specific money on specific students through a host of categorical grants. For most federal purposes, districts were in hock to federal compliance officers.

But, by 1994, politicians in both parties worried that federal money had done little to close gaps in educational opportunity, one of the act’s stated purposes. So, the Improving America’s Schools Act, took the feds a step back. Maybe requiring states to define what students should learn and encouraging them to participate in the National Assessment of Education Progress would spur them to do “what works” in the absence of federal ideas.

By 2001, achievement gaps remained, and NCLB’s theory of action stepped even further away from the classroom. Now, states would have to report on academic performance and states would have to certify that teachers were highly qualified. With the exception of the lowest performing schools (where specific remedies were codified), NCLB assumed that public pressure and the threat of lost funding would compel schools to shape up — somehow.

Continuing the retreat

Enter ESSA. In a gesture of federal humility, the act surrenders the ESEA’s central measurement  components to the states and gives up federal pressure on teacher quality. Further, it allows state to use non-academic measures as part of school scores (which are still required). Sen. Lamar Alexander put this spin on it: ESSA restores “to states, school districts, classroom teachers and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about improving student achievement.” In other words, the federal government spent 50 years trying to move the needle on educational opportunity with little to show for it.

ESSA’s cross-party appeal stems from broad-based anger at No Child Left Behind. That Act was heralded for its support of disadvantaged students using deliberate ties to policy research, but things did not work out that way. Teachers’ unions were angered that testing was increasingly used (or threatened) to evaluate teachers; state departments of education were eager to inflate performance; and conservatives threatened to rebel against federal mandates.

Alexander and others called the bill a “conservative victory.” It did not abolish the Department of Education (a long-time Republican goal that went into hiding in the 1990s), but it did severely curtail its leverage with states and districts. It did not create vouchers (a pet Alexander project), but it allowed states to experiment with alternate funding systems that might look like public-school choice. It did not reduce federal spending on K-12 education, but it did consolidate dozens of funding streams into block grants. Ronald Reagan would be pleased.

American exceptionalism in the classroom

Yet, ESSA illustrates the strange politics of American education. Despite these unquestionably conservative elements, staunch liberal and progressive groups support the effort. The bipartisan NGA and CCSSO, who have spent three years trying to convince legislators that the Common Core was not a federal project, were “thrilled.” The NEA was “encouraged,” and the AFT called passage “extraordinary.” Teachers could influence local policy more effectively than national.  Civil rights groups, though wary because “state and local control has too often been an obstruction to narrowing disparities,” lauded the law as an “improvement.” Even the trenchant NCLB foe FairTest praised elements as “modest win[s]” because states could experiment with alternate ways to test.

Yet, despite its failures, NCLB made reducing educational inequity safe for conservatives and measuring inequality safe for liberals. Federal education law has “borrowed strength” from states and districts to implement ESEA’s goals since its inception. ESSA’s goals have bipartisan support.  States and districts have been practicing federal policy for years; perhaps they are ready for their solo performances.