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Congress Backslides on School Reform

By Kevin Chavous
Wall Street Journal
November 15, 2011

A funny thing happened on the way to reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the sweeping school-reform law better known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB): The debate over reauthorization has spawned a political alliance between the tea party and the teachers unions. These strange bedfellows have teamed up to push for turning teacher-evaluation standards over to the states—in other words, to turn back the clock on educational accountability.

On the right are tea party activists who want the federal government out of everything, including establishing teacher standards. On the left are teachers unions who bridle at the notion of anyone establishing enforceable teacher standards. And in the middle is another generation of American kids who are falling further and further behind their European and Asian counterparts.

Numbers released last year by the Programme for International Student Assessment showed that out of the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the numbers an “absolute wakeup call for America” and urged that we face the “brutal truth” of our children’s ability to compete in the global arena.

Yet Washington deals continue to ensure that the people who stand in front of our nation’s classrooms never have to answer for their students’ performance.

Earlier this year, Mr. Duncan told Congress that four out of five schools would fail to meet their goals under NCLB as currently written, so he pushed for the law to be overhauled with waiver packages that allowed states to circumvent the law’s strict provisions on standards. When President Obama also went on record criticizing NCLB’s “one size fits all” school requirements for the nation, the stage was set for a showdown.

After months of jockeying over waivers and what constitutes “adequate yearly progress” toward the goals laid out in the original legislation, we are now left with a legislative monstrosity that would make Rube Goldberg proud.

The species of monster with the best chance of passage is the so-called Enzi-Harkin bill, which passed the Senate Education Committee last month. It removes from existing law the requirement that states set annual goals tied to the academic performance of children—indeed it sets not a single goal or guideline for academic performance. Instead, it has vague provisions about bullying and parent engagement. These provisions are fine on their own, but are they appropriate in our most important education law that otherwise makes no mention of academic standards?

Teacher accountability and parent choice are the most important aspects of any education reform legislation. They are critical to determining what success should look like and to creating a mechanism for remediation when those standards aren’t met. There is not nearly enough within this new bill to ensure that schools are made to answer for their performance. Nor is there enough to ensure that parents have the ability to protest a failing school with their feet.

To begin fixing this, all of the current law’s language regarding teacher accountability should be reintroduced into Enzi-Harkin. In addition, the reauthorization bill could buttress the “parent trigger” efforts that allow parents in several states to forcibly transform failing schools through petition drives.

But in an election year, it seems unlikely that Congress or the White House will exert the necessary effort. Instead, Washington’s expedient right-left alliance will guarantee one thing: Schools can continue to fail our children—particularly our poorest and most vulnerable children—with impunity. Last month, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten stated how “glad” she was that her union had found “common cause” with Republicans. If this is what bipartisanship looks like, we’re better off with gridlock.
Mr. Chavous is chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

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