On the day that President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law in early 2002, he flew to a high school in Hamilton, Ohio, the home district of Rep. John A. Boehner, a leading Republican supporter of the bill. Later that afternoon, the president appeared in Boston and praised the bill’s Democratic sponsor in the Senate, Edward M. Kennedy.
Nearly a dozen years later, that bipartisanship spirit to federal education policy has evaporated.
The House of Representatives passed on Friday a bill aimed at greatly narrowing the federal role in public education that was expanded under No Child Left Behind. No Democrat voted for the bill, called the Student Success Act, and the Obama administration has threatened to veto it. During the floor debate last week in the House, Rep. George Miller of California, the main Democratic supporter of the Bush-era law, labeled the bill the “Letting Students Down Act.”
The acrimony partly reflects the sharp partisanship in Washington these days. But well beyond the Beltway the debate about education has become far more polarized in the past decade. Strange partnerships have emerged on both sides, as anxiety has grown over the lackluster performance of American students compared with children in other countries.
One group includes business executives, civil rights advocates and even some teachers’ union leaders who say the federal government must hold states and school districts accountable for rigorous standards. The other includes conservatives who want to limit the federal government who have found some common ground with more liberal groups that believe corporate and political interests have hijacked education reform.
“There are odd alliances,” said David M. Steiner, the dean of the School of Education at Hunter College in New York. “And it’s a very deep divide.”
No Child Left Behind required all schools to give students annual reading and mathematics tests in third through eighth grades. The schools are required to publish the results as well as break out the scores of racial minorities, those with disabilities and the poor.
The law requires that all students become proficient in reading and math by 2014. Children attending schools that failed to meet targets along the way to that benchmark are allowed to transfer to other public schools and receive tutoring services, and schools that continue to fail to make progress can have the faculty reconstituted or could be shut down.
Virtually everyone agrees today that such a goal is unreachable and that No Child needs revising. The problem is that no one can agree on how. Congress has failed repeatedly over the past six years to reauthorize the law, leaving it in place and widely disliked.
Over the past two years, the Obama administration has issued waivers that have so far released 39 states and the District of Columbia from the law’s toughest deadlines.
The Republican bill, which passed last week by a vote of 221-207, still requires annual testing and the reporting of scores. But it leaves decisions on how to use the scores up to states and local districts and does not require them to set targets for student achievement or consequences for schools that fail. It also allows states to administer different tests to students with disabilities.
Supporters have hailed the flexibility. “We see the huge diversity around our country and the needs that go from the rural heartland of America to major urban school systems with very different needs and different populations,” said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, which represents 13,000 superintendents around the country. “One program does not fit all.”
Others worry that students in some states will end up with an inferior education. “There are huge discrepancies across states and districts and cities regarding performance,” said Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla. Disability advocates — including some Republicans — have also complained that the bill does not offer enough protections to special-education students.
At the same time, groups of frustrated teacher and parent associations have railed against what they say is an undue emphasis on standardized testing that has warped classroom teaching and triggered high-profile cheating scandals. But even those who want to move public schools away from such high-stakes testing say that if school districts are not required to show they are improving student achievement, they will likely ignore the most vulnerable students.
“We can’t forget what districts were allowed to do to black kids and brown kids and poor kids before No Child Left Behind,” said Joshua Starr, the superintendent of Montgomery County schools in Maryland. “Unfortunately a lot of the conversations continue to perpetuate wrongheaded accountability. It’s still about too much standardized testing. But without the accountability measures for states and districts — I do fear what happens to the equity agenda.”
The bill that passed last week is also aimed at satisfying those who oppose the Common Core, a set of standards that outline what each student should learn in reading and math from kindergarten through high school. The standards have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, but critics have accused the Obama administration of foisting them on states behind the fig leaf of the waivers offered to No Child Left Behind.
By putting language in the Republican bill that leaves standards to the states, “the conversation can be about the merits of the Common Core rather than this federal slippery slope,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute.
Others say such localism defies common sense. “We would not do that in health or standards in engineering about how to build a bridge,” said Kenneth Dodge, a professor of public policy at Duke University.
Senate Democrats want to require states to implement rigorous standards and set performance targets for students.
But some teachers say the entire debate about federal policy is focused on the wrong things. Josh Stumpenhorst, a sixth-grade history and English teacher in Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, and the Illinois Teacher of the Year in 2012, said that rather than test students constantly he would like to see federal policy mandating better teacher training and more mentorship for struggling teachers.
“The less effective teachers exist because they came out of college not prepared and they’re in a system where there isn’t a mentor that is able to improve them,” Stumpenhorst said. “Bad teachers typically exist because they’ve never seen another way of doing it.”