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Congress Continues Federal Boondoggle in Education

UPDATE: On Wednesday, Dec. 9th, one day after publication of this blog, the US Senate reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in the form of the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) by a vote of 85-12.

The United States Senate is about to pass the latest iteration of federal overreach in public education, following the House’s approval of the conference report last Wednesday.  The latest boondoggle, entitled Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is the newest version of President Lyndon Johnson’s 1960’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  The most well known version prior to the ESSA was the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

To give you an idea of how huge, expensive and outlandish the federal government’s involvement in education has become, let me list off just a few of the spending goodies found in this bill:

  • $1.1B for “21st Century Community Learning Centers;”
  • $2.3B to continue “supporting effective instruction” in the classroom;
  • $490M for more support of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) initiatives;
  • $10M to restart a defunded program that creates Parental Information and Resource Centers “to engage families in education;”
  • $250M for early childhood preschools through Head Start (a major concern given this is an historic expansion of federal involvement in early childhood education on the heels of clear evidence early childhood education is a disaster – more on this later.)

This list is certainly not exhaustive.  There is much, much, much more to be found in the bill if you have time to peruse the hundreds of pages.  Much of it does what every federal education bill has done since the 1960s – lay out a list of federal requirements that state must adhere to in order for them to get federal tax dollars.   Most of the federal requirements in this latest reauthorization continue to focus on what NCLB started in 2002- federally dictated accountability.

While the bill eliminates some elements of NCLB, it persists in micro managing states by continuing the push to create “state accountability systems.”  While that may sound good – letting the state’s create their own systems – rest assured it subtly does the exact opposite.

Instead, the ESSA resumes federal micromanagement of states including: accountability requirements to keep high stakes testing in place; and requiring states to put more weight on statewide test score results and graduation rates in their accountability systems.   To be factually accurate states should not call their accountability plans “state plans” but rather “federally mandated, federally micromanaged state plans.”

Despite talking points about getting the feds out of standards creation, there is still a requirement that states continue to maintain high state standards- a clear nod to the continuation of the much-hated Common Core State Standards.  There is a requirement that states continue to submit their state plans for all of these requirements for review and approval by the U. S. Secretary of Education.

And the list goes on and on.

If this doesn’t make your blood boil let me point out what isn’t in the bill.

First off, there isn’t any language to allow states to have freedom from ALL the other requirements as were proposed and heavily supported nationwide by parent grassroots groups this spring.  The A-Plus Provision would have allowed states great flexibility to “opt out” of all federal programs and requirements and still receive their Title 1 funds.  These funds are used to service disadvantaged and minority students.  The A-Plus would have allowed states to take that money in a block grant and use it locally in a manner they decide is best, not the federal government. This was not in bill as it was rejected by wide margins by the Congress this spring.

Also not in the bill is a complete “opt out” for parents who do not wish to have their children tested and tested and tested.  Instead this bill maintains the 95% language used in No Child Left Behind and enforced for years by school districts.

In other words, school districts must have 95% of their students taking the test on test day or else they will be penalized and could lose certain funds.  So parents can “opt out” as long as they only make up 5% of all students.  If your child happens to tip the number into the 6% range, your “opt out” will be denied and your child will be forced to take the test or face outlandish truancy laws.   We have seen in Wyoming a troubling trend toward legal prosecution of these truancy laws and an Attorney General opinion that props up this persecution of parents.

Overall the ESSA is just more of the same old same old we have seen from Congress since the 1960s when it promised great change in education to improve the educational outcomes of students, particularly minority students.  Promises it has failed to keep.

Which is why perhaps the most honest things this bill has is a change in the language for the goal of  $15B worth of Title 1 funds.  This change, I believe, more accurately reflects the failures of the federal government’s decades long involvement in public education.

The purpose of Title 1 funds is no longer for “improving the academic achievement of the disadvantaged.”  Instead Congress has seen fit to change it to “improving basic programs operated by state and local education agencies.”  That may be the only nod we get towards acknowledging the federal failure in education.  But it also a nod towards the seemingly endless role of the federal government in areas it should never have become involved in the first place.

Parents can see the passage of this bill by wide margins in Congress as just another reasons to get out of public education any way they can.  And if the trend continues, that’s exactly what will happen.

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