An exceptionally rare development is about to happen in Washington: Congress is expected to pass, and President Barack Obama is expected to approve, legislation that will unambiguously shift federal policy to the right on education. Ironically, the only obstacle in the way are conservatives themselves, who believe the new legislation doesn’t go far enough.
The 1,061-page Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), formally unveiled Monday after weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiating, aspires to replace 2002’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which has become deeply unpopular on both sides of the aisle. The bill is primarily the work of Republican Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, who has spent the past year working hard to marshal bipartisan support for the bill. The current bill is a fusion of two bills, the Senate’s Every Child Achieves Act and the House’s Student Success Act, both of which were passed last summer. (RELATED: House Passes No Child Left Behind Replacement)
ESSA as written would accomplish several conservative goals in the realm of education. Most notably, the bill will substantially limit the Department of Education and give more authority to state governments. For instance, ESSA will allow states to define their own education achievement goals (NCLB set identical goals for the whole country), and they’ll also have more leeway to decide when and how to intervene in failing schools.
The law also categorically bars the Department of Education from forcing or incentivizing states to adopt particular educational standards. So the various measures the Obama administration used to encourage the adoption of Common Core at the state level (such as federal funding grants) will be prohibited in the future, which may help quiet claims that the Core represents a federal takeover of education.
The bill is a true compromise though, and includes several concession intended to win Democratic votes and prevent an Obama veto. The bill preserves a requirement that school conduct annual standardized tests in reading and math from grades 3-8, and track results by race, income, and other factors to measure educational achievement gaps. Some conservatives hoped to eliminate this requirement, but it was preserved after intense lobbying by activists who believe public test scores have been important for putting pressure on states to improve education for the poor and racial minorities.
The bill will also create some new federal programs, such as a $250 million one to help promote the expansion of preschool and another to encourage more people with STEM expertise to enter and stay in teaching.
Thanks to these compromises, ESSA is winning endorsements on both the right and the left. The Republican-dominated National Governors Association has endorsed the bill, as has the American Federation of Teachers (the country’s second-largest teachers union) and the Center for American Progress. Still, the bill certainly shifts federal policy rightwards, and is a rare case of federal power being rolled back and states being empowered instead.
But not all conservatives are satisfied. The Heritage Foundation and its political wing, Heritage Action, have been particularly strong in their opposition, and Heritage Action has been urging Congress to reject the compromise bill.
Heritage’s argument is essentially that the bill is not conservative enough and should be rejected in the hopes of passing a more conservative bill later.
“The proposal … creates several major new programs and initiatives, maintaining a ‘program for every problem’ structure,” writes Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst for Heritage. “As such, the proposal would likely maintain significant federal intervention in local school policy for years to come.” Burke also faults the bill for not eliminating annual testing requirements, doing nothing to advance school choice at the federal level, for not giving states the option to opt out of federal oversight entirely.
Others have criticized ESSA for doing nothing to update federal laws governing student privacy. Student privacy is currently governed by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which predates the computer and Internet revolution and therefore has a large number of holes opening up student data for use by the government or even by private companies.
Whether this opposition will be enough to halt the bill remains to be seen. ESSA is expected to be voted on in the House before the end of the week, followed by a Senate vote next week. If the bill is to be stopped, it will likely be in the House, where it barely passed last summer and could encounter substantial opposition from conservatives. That means opponents have just a few days to stop the bill in its tracks. New speaker of the House Paul Ryan has pledged to not advance legislation unless it is supported by a majority of Republicans, meaning foes could stop the bill by convincing at least 123 House Republicans to reject it. Twenty-seven voted against the Student Success Act the first time around, meaning at least 96 more representatives will have to change their votes to stop the bill.
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