ESEA Reauthorization – We Need to Get it Right

Yesterday at SaddleBrooke Ranch, near the town of Oracle, Arizona’s Secretary of Education, John Huppenthal said that if people want to fight the Federalism of public education, they need to focus on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) versus the Common Core Standards.   He intimated that the Obama Administration has been systematically inserting the Federal government in the business of education, that area which should solely be up to the states.


President George W. Bush first reauthorized ESEA and renamed it the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB.) This law required states to conduct annual testing in reading and math for students in the third thro

ugh the eight grades.  The tests were required to align with state academic standards and adequate yearly progress (AYP) was the measure to determine student proficiency.  Due to NCLB, states must furnish annual report cards showing student-achievement data broken down by subgroup and information on the performance of the school districts.[i]

Originally viewed as a bipartisan success, when increasing numbers of schools were labeled as failing despite making gains in achievement, educators and policymakers began to question its fairness and feasibility.  Now, so many schools are designated as not meeting AYP and there are inadequate resources to address the problem.

ESEA was supposed to be reauthorized in 2007, but Congress hasn’t been able to agree on the solution.  The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee passed its version of the reauthorization.  It maintained annual testing; required states to disaggregate student data by race/ethnicity, students with disabilities, and English-language learners; eliminated AYP; targeting school interventions on lowest-performing 5 percent of schools; and required states to create common core “college- and career-ready standards.”

Most educators and policy experts agree NCLB has major flaws and actually creates barriers to reform and student progress.  Since 2007 though, there’s been disagreement about how to fix it.  Conservatives want to see the federal role in education reduced and progressives generally want to see less focus on testing.  Due to Congressional inaction on ESEA reauthorization, the Obama Administration elected to grant waivers to specific provisions of the law and require states to adopt common core standards (or similarly college and career readiness standards), focus efforts on the lowest 15 percent of their schools, and create guidelines for teacher evaluation based in part on student performance.

Frederick “Rick” Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the administration and the “reform left are trying to ensure that states do the right thing” while Hill Republicans are “skeptical of federal overreach and dubious that federal efforts will yield the desired results.”  Hess sees the waivers though, as a “troubling precedent. [The waivers] dramatically expanded what is now kosher for the executive branch to insist upon in exchange for a waiver.” 

Within a few days, the House is expected to vote on the “Student Success Act” (the House Education and Workforce Committee” version of the ESEA reauthorization.  The National Education Association (NEA) opposed the bill in committee, primarily because it would erode the historical federal role in public education of helping to ensure equity of opportunity by targeting resources to marginalized student populations.[ii]  NEA also opposes the efforts to add private school vouchers, prevent a continued focus on high stakes tests while hoping to restore collective bargaining

protections.  These are important so that educators feel free to have a voice in their schools’ success.

The Federal government has an important role in public education.  According to the NEA, (consistent with the original intent of ESEA) it must “(1) ensure that states and localities are held accountable for ensuring equity of opportunity for all students; (2) invest in robust, ongoing, independent research about sound education practices and what students need to succeed; and (3) serve as a clearinghouse of best practices.”[iii]

Good legislation and smart governance is rarely an all or nothing game.  It involves give and take and input from all sides to ensure the best solutions are developed.  This reauthorization of the ESEA is important.  It needs to be done right.  Let your legislators here from their boss….yes, that’s right, YOU!


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