Boring But Important: Senate Sends Huge Education Law To Obama’s Desk

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Blake Neff Reporter
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The U.S. Senate easily passed a bill Wednesday morning which will dramatically overhaul how the federal government approaches K-12 education. With the bill already passed in the House, its only remaining barrier to becoming a law is President Barack Obama, who says he will sign it.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is primarily the work of two Republicans, [crscore]Lamar Alexander[/crscore] in the Senate and [crscore]John Kline[/crscore] in the House, who have spent the better part of the year working on it. Even though the bill shifts education policy noticeably to the right and reduces the power of the federal government, Obama is supportive. His willingness to sign the bill reflects the general, bipartisan dissatisfaction with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that the new bill will replace.

The bill passed 85-12. All 12 Nay votes came from Republicans who believe the bill does not go far enough in cutting spending and reducing federal control.

But what the bill does do is significant. Notably, the bill prohibits any actions by the federal government to require or incentivize states to adopt Common Core or other school standards. The Obama administration had used such incentives in recent years to encourage states to use Common Core.

“Washington has no business dictating to states and school districts what is best for the students they serve,” Sen. [crscore]Pat Roberts[/crscore], who authored the relevant amendment, says in a statement sent to The Daily Caller News Foundation. “This bill will restore that responsibility back to states, local school districts, superintendents, principals, teachers, local school boards, parents and students.”

The bill also substantially depowers the Department of Education in other ways. States are given far more oversight in the realm of teacher evaluations, how to intervene in failing schools, and how to use assorted types of federal funding. The Department of Education will have its role significantly restricted to one focused on providing transparency, rather than active oversight and control. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who is stepping down this month, will leave his office far weaker than he was when taking over back in 2009, a rare development for any cabinet secretary, and especially one serving under a Democratic president.

Not all conservatives are happy, though. The Heritage Foundation blasted the bill for maintaining federal requirements that students in grades 3-8 be tested in math and reading. Obama strongly suggested he will veto any bill that eliminated testing requirements, which civil rights groups say are critical for maintaining accountability. Since ESSA gives states more freedom to decide how important the tests are in evaluating schools and teachers, though, the new bill may reduce the degree to which teachers “teach to the test,” which has been a common criticism of NCLB.

Heritage is also unhappy the bill doesn’t do more to slash federal spending or reduce programs, and it has complained that the bill codifies an existing federal program intended to help states coordinate new preschool programs with preexisting ones such as Head Start. Heritage attacked this preschool funding as the creation of an entirely new $250 million program, although it actually did exist beforehand.

But even the bill’s strongest backers admit it isn’t perfect, and is instead a product of genuine compromise between the two parties.

“This is not a perfect bill,” Kline tells  The Washington Post last week. “To make progress, you find common ground. But make no mistake: We compromised on the details, and we did not compromise our principles.”

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