Issues for the Next President: Education Standards

Published on November 5, 2012
by CQ Weekly in Accountability and School Improvement, K-12 Education, ESEA / No Child Left Behind

Excerpt from Lauren Smith's article.

The Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind education law, with its heavy emphasis on standardized tests and an onerous accountability system for schools, seemed to have made many more enemies than friends by the time George W. Bush left office in 2009. Rewriting the law, though, has been beyond Congress’ capacity.

The product of all this White House tinkering and congressional dithering is a patchwork of standards and accountability across the country more reminiscent of education policy before Bush tried to draw it all together under his No Child version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).The Obama administration, meanwhile, unable to persuade Capitol Hill to adopt its own approach to education, has given up on legislation for now and has instead been piecing together a school policy by selectively granting states money to overhaul their programs — personified by the Race to the Top competition — and by allowing them exemptions from the more onerous requirements of No Child, if they pursue the administration’s goals.

“Right now, there is a lot of fragmentation in various states,” says Anne Hyslop, an education policy expert at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. “There are Race to the Top grants on top of ESEA waivers, on top of efforts to implement a variety of new policies that sometimes overlap and sometimes don’t.”

For those who think education policy should be left to the states and local school boards, this is not necessarily a bad result. Many conservatives thought Bush’s law was too intrusive anyway. But with No Child still in force, the next president faces the difficult choice of continuing to ignore it — essentially isolating the law in a web of regulation and presidential directives — or persuading Congress to dump it and start over.

Starting over hasn’t gotten far the past four years. House and Senate education committees adopted bills, but they were starkly different, and the authorization process creaked to a halt.

“There’s still a lot of sunlight between those two bills and I don’t think a lot of people are optimistic about its chances next year,” says Sarah Rosenberg, a policy expert at Education Sector, a nonpartisan think tank.

An End Run Around ‘No Child’

In the meantime, President Obama has given Education Secretary Arne Duncan the go-ahead to offer waivers to states clamoring for regulatory relief from some of No Child’s requirements. So far, 34 states and the District of Columbia have been granted waivers in exchange for adopting new policies, such as revamped accountability systems, higher academic standards and teacher evaluations based in part on student test scores. While the states’ waiver applications are nearly identical in goals, they are entirely different in substance, effectively creating 35 separate education plans.

Further jumbling education policies are the administration’s competitive grants, such as Race to the Top, Student Improvement Grants and Investing in Innovation. Cash-strapped states are eager for extra federal money, but in the process they must agree to education policies the administration likes.

“States are implementing a lot of the same ideas, but they may be in different places on them or be implementing different variations of them,” Hyslop says. “It makes it difficult at the federal level to figure out what the federal role is and how it can be most effective.”

“A lot has happened in the last four years, both through Race to the Top and the waivers,” Rosenberg agrees. “Many states have proposed rigorous education reforms and the harder part of the process is implementation. I think, moving forward, whoever is president next will have to work with Congress to decide what the federal role is...”