WASHINGTON – Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline has spent the last few years trying to broker the rarest of deals in Washington, a bipartisan accord on a deeply controversial and entrenched education accountability measure.
Kline achieved his biggest and most lasting political accomplishment Thursday as he stood on stage in the White House while President Obama signed into law a massive overhaul of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The new measure gained both the support of die-hard conservatives and Democrats like U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a historic accomplishment at a time of often deep partisan divide.
"It takes work," Kline said of building the bipartisan coalition. "But since we were working to the same big goal, you could start working out the details."
Obama called it a "Christmas miracle" at the ceremony, saying, "This is a big step in the right direction, a true bipartisan effort."
The new Every Student Succeeds Act empowers local school officials to take back control of schools, to decide for themselves how to gauge whether students are really learning and what to do about poorly performing schools.
Kline faced massive skepticism that a deal could come together after announcing he would retire from Congress at the end of his term. But the agreement reveals that Kline, freed from the pressures of another re-election battle, was adept at maneuvering around a perilous political landscape to help build support among Democrats.
In past years, Kline, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, passed two Republican-driven education reform bills in the House, but they failed to get much Democratic support.
This fall, Kline and other members of Congress made another last-ditch shot at a deal. At their direction, Republican and Democratic staffers toiled in closed-door meetings for hours to reach some kind of agreement. The stickiest issues were the ones that have bedeviled political leaders for years: Who will be ultimately responsible for failing schools? How do districts report test results? Who should make overarching decisions about schools not cutting it? Should there be national standards in reading and writing?
The old law, ushered in under the Bush administration, added a strong federal hand on how schools were run and policed. Political leaders were reacting to a time when states inconsistently monitored student achievement, student dropout rates were soaring, the achievement gap was widening and bad teachers and principals faced few if any repercussions.
Over the past decade, a growing number of teachers, superintendents, principals and politicians began to openly oppose the law, saying it was an onerous burden and actually hindered student achievement.
Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the new law gives the state and school districts more freedom to chart their own path to help students graduate successfully.
Minnesota has a waiver from No Child Left Behind — which means it wasn't really subject to the federal law anymore. But the new measure will result in new flexibility locally.
For parents, Cassellius said, it will likely take a year or two to see any big differences.
"We'll still test students, but it may look different. We'll identify high-performing and low-performing schools, but that will also look different," she said, adding that the full ramifications could be a decade out.
At Chanhassen High School, principal Tim Dorway said he is excited to have more freedom to gauge student achievement beyond high-stakes testing.
He plans on posing some additional questions like: How do kids feel about school? Do they feel like they're learning? Is school safe? How many kids are going on to some post-graduation program?
Dorway is also eager to see how much students are progressing from 10th to 12th grade, which was not tracked under the old law. "It wasn't looking at individual students getting better," he said.
Dorway plans to start gauging growth as the kids progress through high school, looking at how they do on 10th-grade tests, then on the pre-ACTs taken in 11th grade. Because 95 percent of Chanhassen students attend two- or four-year schools after graduating, the college-requirement tests are more high-stakes and the kids typically work harder than they do for state tests.
"It makes much more sense, this is where they were in October when they were sophomores, and then this is where they were when they graduated," Dorway said.
Accountability vs. learning
The superintendent of Anoka-Hennepin Schools, David Law, said his biggest complaint about No Child Left Behind was the punishing feel. He found the accountability effort crushing to some learners.
"We need to show the taxpayers we're doing good things with their money, but if accountability increases students losing hope or stopping trying, then accountability is counterproductive," he said. "I worry that we've given a message to some communities that they can't learn and I want to undo that quickly."
Law would prefer that schools test less often, like every couple of years, because it drains so much energy from the school year. He plans to have administrators from his best schools share with the other schools how students are growing grade by grade, which he says is a better measure of improved learning.
"It's sharing what works to beat the odds rather than punish a school for what's not working," Law said.
Franken, who has not often agreed with Kline politically, displayed similar jubilation when the new measure passed the Senate. He has often said the only thing that people liked about No Child Left Behind was the name.
Franken said he is encouraged by the new student achievement reporting requirements, which he thinks will even out concerns that the new law will rollout unevenly across the states.
"There is a yin and a yang on this," Franken said. "What I saw was that NCLB did not work. It had these very strict provisions about how to reform the school, how to change your school, your school is failing. … This is really giving flexibility to the states."
Kline said he found room for an agreement because there was one area where everyone seemed to agree. "This is no question a very big deal because No Child Left Behind was killing us," he said.
Allison Sherry • 202-383-6120