Is the End Near for No Child Left Behind?

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source: Green & Write, November 16, 2015

On Friday, rumors broke that members of Congress had reached an agreement to move a long-awaited No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reauthorization to conference committee, meaning that legislation to replace NCLB could conceivably be passed by the end of the year. To assist our readers following these discussions, this post is dedicated to explaining the similarities and differences between the pieces of legislation passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The Troubled Quest for Reauthorization

George W. Bush Signs the No Child Left Behind Act. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The 2002 NCLB Act was actually a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which provides federal funding for the nation’s schools and aims to equalize educational access for disadvantaged students. The bulk of the funding is distributed through Title I of the law, which provides money for materials and remedial services in districts serving poor students. NCLB stipulated that as a condition of receiving this money (which makes up about 10% of state education budgets), states would have to begin testing all students annually in grades 3-8 and hold schools accountable for test results.

When NCLB was enacted in 2002, it was authorized for only five years, meaning that Congress was expected to revisit the law in 2007 and make changes. By that time, NCLB had become so wildly unpopular that one of the architects of the law, then-Congressman George Miller (D-CA), bluntly told the press that there was not one single person in Congress who would vote to reauthorize NCLB without major changes. However, efforts to update the legislation failed to gain any traction that year as both parties preferred to wait out the results of 2008 presidential election before trying to change the federal government’s most important education law.

Following the election, though, the nation and its new president, Barack Obama, were forced to tackle an historic financial crisis and simultaneously address the Administration’s priorities in healthcare and climate change. Education was pushed onto the backburner, and the Administration did not propose a blueprint for NCLB’s reauthorization until March 2010 – hardly enough time before the midterms produced a Republican landslide that once again consigned the issue to the political cellar.

But finally this year, congressional attention once again turned to the legislation’s renewal. In July, the House of Representatives and the Senate both passed bills to replace NCLB, although the two bills contain significant differences that now must be reconciled in a conference committee.

Similarities Between the Bills

Together, the two bills significantly scale back the federal role in education and free states from the suffocating requirements of NCLB and the Administration’s waiver protocols. The bills would still require states to test all students annually in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8, but they would eliminate the current accountability system (known as annual yearly progress, or AYP) and once again afford states the freedom to create their own accountability systems. States would be expected to publish disaggregated test score results and intervene in low-performing schools, but neither bill defines what a low-performing school is, how many schools should be identified as low-performing at any one time, or what remedies should be used in the case of an intervention. Both bills would also prohibit the Department of Education from pressuring states to adopt any particular set of content standards (like the Common Core) and dial back the federal government’s focus on teacher evaluation, leaving reform in that area up to the states. They also address concerns about over-testing by encouraging states to evaluate their testing regimes, eliminate duplicative or low-quality assessments, and experiment with alternative forms of assessment.

Differences Between the Bills

The two bills also contain significant differences that will have to be reconciled in a conference committee before a final piece of legislation can be sent to the President’s desk. The most conspicuous difference involves what is known as Title I “Portability.” Essentially, the House bill converts Title I into a voucher program, allowing the federal dollars to follow students to any public school of their choice. The Senate bill does not allow this, and it seems likely that this provision will have to be removed from the conference bill in order to win vital support from Senate Democrats. The House version also merges many categorical programs – for migrant students and English-language learners, among others – with Title I, giving the ESEA more features of a typical block grant. The Senate bill retains the existing categorical structure of the law and even provides some funding for early education – the first time preK funding has been incorporated into the ESEA.

It is not yet clear what exact compromises have been struck between the congressional parties, but as details trickle out in the coming next weeks, the editors of Green & Write will keep you posted.

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.