In 2014, teachers were upset about excessive standardized tests, women were upset about campus sexual assault, kids were upset about gross school lunches. Republicans were split over Common Core, Democrats divided over teachers unions.
Here are five education-related issues to watch in the New Year.
1. Common Core The multistate education standards will continue to dominate the education debate.
After peaking in participation with 46 states, 2014 saw the tide for Common Core start to recede for the first time, as Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina all repealed the standards and moved to replace them with new ones, while Missouri and North Carolina created panels that could end in the replacement of the standards as well.
Don’t expect the fights to stop this year, especially since 2015 will mark the first year most states use standardized tests aligned with Common Core. With the new legislative season about to begin, many Republican lawmakers around the country are girding up for another assault. Bills aiming to repeal or substantially modify Common Core are being prepared in Tennessee, Wisconsin, Kentucky and numerous other states.
The going will still be hard, however. Most Democrats and many Republicans are still defenders of Common Core, and could derail or divert these new efforts like they did many others last year. In some states like Utah or South Dakota, pro-Core Republican governors could potentially end up in a standoff with their own party members in the legislature.
Also complicating matters in 2015 will be the beginning of the Republican primary race. Jeb Bush has already tentatively put his hat in the ring, and his support for Common Core is already considered a top potential weakness. Be ready for the standards to be brought up repeatedly in early Republican presidential debates, with foes attacking proponents while arguing with each other over who has done the most to stop the standards.
2. No Child Left Behind reform For over a decade, K-12 education has been a marginal issue at best in Congress. The biggest reason for that: No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
The law, passed with bipartisan support in 2001, is now almost universally seen as broken thanks to mandating standards, such as universal proficiency in math and reading, that have proven impossible to reach. Dissatisfaction is so high that Arne Duncan’s Education Department has virtually suspended much of the law by handing out legally dubious waivers from its tougher requirements.
In 2015, however, there are promising signs that the partisan gridlock that prevented any update to the law may finally be breaking down. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who will be taking over the Senate’s education committee, has declared an NCLB update his top priority, and he wants to attack the issue fast, potentially having a bill up for debate before the end of January.
The most obvious change Alexander could pursue against NCLB is the scaling back or elimination of the “adequate yearly progress” requirement, which severely sanctions schools that aren’t quickly progressing towards universal proficiency. Almost everybody agrees that the requirement is broken and should be significantly scaled back to less drastic accountability measures.
Another change Alexander could pursue is a major reform to NCLB’s oft-criticized standardized testing requirements. Currently, federal law calls for all students to be tested from grades 3-8 as well as once during high school. Republicans could try to slash the number of required tests, or even eliminate them entirely. If they do, they’ll face initial opposition from President Obama, who has defended annual testing as an essential accountability measure. Even if Obama is opposed, though, Republicans will have an unlikely ally in strongly-Democratic teachers unions such as the American Federation of Teachers, which have loudly called for testing requirements to be changed.
From the right, Alexander will be pressured to take things further, and reform NCLB in order to substantially reduce the federal government’s role and influence over public education (some have proposed letting states opt out of federal control entirely). This pressure could result in a more conservative vision being implemented…but could also prevent any bill from being passed at all.
3. Sexual assault Rolling Stone’s sort-of retraction of a spectacular story involving fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia stole headlines last year, but 2014 also saw the Obama administration involve itself in the matter of campus sexual assault in a big way. That trend should continue in 2015.
Currently, the Obama administration has over ninety investigations pending against colleges and universities for possible Title IX violations over their handling of sexual assault. The administration believes universities are proving too lackadaisical in investigating complaints and punishing sexual assault and harassment. Now, it’s finally willing to use the severe threat of a potential cutoff of federal funds to compel change across the country.
Just before the end of the year, Harvard Law School reached an agreement with the federal government to avoid punishment, which involves reducing the rights of accused students and expanding the powers of accusers. This agreement could foreshadow dozens of similar ones that will be reached this year.
Another effort that began in 2014 and could explode in 2015 is the promotion of the “affirmative consent” standard for sexual assault. This standard, which holds that individuals commit sexual assault if they don’t receive explicit prior permission for every sex act from their partner, was adopted this year at every public college in California as well as in the State University of New York system.
Don’t expect activists to stop there, though. Other states could give the policy a look, and New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has even floated the possibility of implementing the standard at the national level.
4. College ratings Announced a year and a half ago, just before Christmas President Obama finally unveiled his first tentative proposal for a federal college ranking system. The early proposal, which contains no specific details, centers almost entirely on how much a college costs, how well it prepares students for the job market, and how inclusive it is towards the economically marginalized.
Obama hopes to have the final system in place by the start of the 2015 school year, but his efforts are likely to face substantial resistance from Republicans in Congress as well as the higher education establishment. Once a more substantial system is outlined later this year, Republicans may move to try defunding the rating system, or even prohibiting it entirely. While NCLB reauthorization offers a glimmer of hope for bipartisan cooperation, this issue is almost certain to explode into a bitter partisan showdown between the president and Congress.
5. School lunches The Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, first lady Michelle Obama’s leading policy initiative of the Obama presidency, will likely come into the GOP’s crosshairs this year. The Child Nutrition Act, which the 2010 bill was an update of, expires this year and requires reauthorization.
A diverse group of food industry lobbyists, school nutritionists, parents, and children are unhappy with the laws various nutritional requirements, which mandate that schools benefiting from federal lunch programs give out large numbers of fruits and vegetables while cutting down on sodium, processed flours, and other less-healthy ingredients.
Sensing an issue of weakness for the president, many powerful Republicans are eager to make changes. Rep. John Kline, who will chair the House Education and Workforce committee, and Pat Roberts, who will take over the Senate Agricultural Committee, are both vocal critics of Obama’s school lunch policy.
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