By year’s end, the controversial No Child Left Behind federal education law likely will be history. Last week, the U.S. House approved an NCLB replacement, and the Senate is expected to pass the companion bill this week. President Obama is expected to sign the measure soon after.
Two Minnesota lawmakers, Republican Rep. John Kline and Democratic Sen. Al Franken, deserve credit for working out details of the long-awaited rewrite in conference committee. As committee chairman, Kline led the negotiations on the finishing touches, building on the bipartisan work of other lawmakers. The compromise attempts to strike a balance between the Democrats’ emphasis on the academic issues of poor and minority students, and the Republican focus on less federal and more state control of public schools.
It rightly ends some of the most onerous features of NCLB, such as labeling and sanctioning schools based on narrow test criteria and setting unrealistic academic goals. But it also leaves open the possibility that without those requirements, some states might neglect efforts to improve learning for struggling students. One positive feature of NCLB has been the attention it focused on America’s significant learning gaps between white students and students of color.
The new bill wisely maintains required annual proficiency tests in math and reading, but it would allow states to decide which tests to administer and how they would use results to hold schools and teachers accountable. States still would be required to take action with low-performing schools, but the federal government could not decide what steps would be taken.
The new rules would consolidate nearly 50 federal programs and allow states and schools more control over how they spend federal money. The bill also encourages states to limit testing and would end federal efforts to tie test scores to teacher evaluations.
Approved by Congress and then-President George W. Bush in 2002, NCLB was an iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965 during the Johnson administration. Congress was supposed to reauthorize the law in 2007. Yet despite nearly universal public backlash and calls for change, NCLB remained in place and became caught in a broader debate over the federal role in public education.
Following the House vote last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement that the vote was “good news for our nation’s schools,” citing administration priorities such as a new early-childhood program that made it into the bill.
Franken admitted that it is not a “perfect” bill, but he said he was pleased that it includes more resources for student mental health needs, better training for principals, increased science and technology instruction, and the flexibility to use tests that more accurately measure skills
In several areas, the new law brings welcome, long-overdue changes to federal education oversight. At the same time, Minnesota and other states must remain committed to narrowing learning disparities — even after some of the federal requirements are no longer in place.