Obama’s Signature Ends NCLB; Every Student Succeeds Act Shifts Standards Setting to States

Dec 22nd, 2015 | By | Category: Advocacy, News
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Jeff Frost


—On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed into law a new education reauthorization bill that had been worked on for several weeks by congressional representatives. The new law, called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), makes a number of important changes to how education policy will be handled and allows states, not the federal Department of Education, to set standards for educational success. This act had not been updated since the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was agreed to in the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency.

Some weeks ago, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the leading members on education policy issues, started working on a framework for moving forward on a long-stalled rewrite of the ESEA. Once agreement on a framework was reached, Congress was able to move quickly to approve the new ESSA by overwhelming votes in each house. The final step was the signature of the president.

But the key was getting the key legislative negotiators to find a path toward compromise. Here is the statement from the key negotiators: “We believe we have a path forward that can lead to a successful conference, and that is why we are recommending to our leadership to appoint conferees to take the next step in replacing No Child Left Behind. Because of the framework we’ve developed, we are optimistic that the members of the conference committee can reach agreement on a final bill that Congress will approve and the president will sign.”

As originally reported in Education Week magazine, overall everyone walked out of the negotiations with his or her biggest priority intact, an aide said.

“Everybody has a lot to be happy about,” said a GOP aide who participated in the process.

The proposal took a little bit from all sides while rolling back the federal footprint on K-12 education more than nearly anyone would have imagined possible back when the current version of ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2002. The U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who has flexed his executive muscle on K-12 more than any other secretary in history, had kind words for the lawmakers who negotiated the agreement. Duncan said in a statement:

“It is good news for our nation’s schools that Congress is taking the next step forward toward a serious bipartisan plan to revamp the outdated No Child Left Behind law. America’s students deserve a bill that increases educational opportunity for all and lives up to the civil rights legacy of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We are encouraged that Congressional negotiators appear to be moving toward a framework that accomplishes those goals.”

On Accountability

The compromise used the Senate bill as a jumping-off point. Quick refresher: That means states would still have to test students in Grades 3-8 and once in high school in reading and math. But states would get to decide how much those tests count for accountability purposes. And states would be in the driver’s seat when it comes to goals for schools, school ratings, and more.

States would be required to identify and take action in the bottom 5% of schools and in schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate.

States would also have to identify and take action in schools that aren’t closing the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers. But it is important that the law doesn’t say how many of those schools states would have to pinpoint, or what they would have to do to ensure that they are closing the gaps—the law allows state leaders to figure all that out.

On Opt-Outs

The law largely sticks with the Senate language, which would allow states to create their own testing opt-out laws. But it maintains the federal requirement for 95% percent participation in tests. However, unlike under the NCLB law, in which schools with participation rates of lower than 95% were automatically seen as failures, local districts and states would get to decide what should happen in schools that miss targets. States would have to take low testing participation into consideration in their accountability systems. Just how to do that would be up to each state, though.

On Programs

This is a large win for Congressman Kline, the chair of the House Education Committee. There is more consolidation of federal education in the compromise than there was in the Senate bill, including block granting of physical education, mathematics and science partnerships, and Advanced Placement. In fact, about 50 programs are included in the block grant, some of which, such as education technology, haven’t seen much federal funding in years.

Senator Murray got the early childhood investment she wanted. But the new program will be housed at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), not the Education Department, as some Democrats had initially hoped. The Education Department will jointly administer the program, sources say. The move to HHS helped win Kline’s support.

On School Choice

Under the compromise, federal funds won’t be able to follow the child to the school of his or her choice. But it does include a pilot project allowing districts to try out a weighted student-funding formula, which would also essentially function as a backpack of funds for children. The program would allow 50 districts to combine state, local, and federal funds into a single pot that could follow a child to the school of choice. It is said to be a more workable alternative to Title I portability. But with this pilot, participation would be entirely up to district officials. And the language would give them a chance to better target funds to individual school needs.

Other Funding Issues

The compromise does not change the Title I funding formula—which had been proposed in the Senate version. This would steer a greater share of the funds to districts with high concentrations of kids in poverty. These changes would be consistent with the Local Control Funding Formula that California has adopted so there would be no real change for our state. However, there were some changes to the Title II formula (which funds teacher quality) that would be a boon to rural states.


The new ESSA is a significant departure from its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB was driven by federally established metrics that, under the Average Yearly Progress (AYP) measurement, resulted in nearly every school’s being forced into Program Improvement status (PI). In the new ESSA, Program Improvement is eliminated. It is replaced with state’s identifying the bottom 5% of Title I schools and developing intervention and restructuring strategies to improve student outcomes. This is basically what California’s new Local Control Funding Formula accountability system is working toward. ESSA also eliminates AYP and the Highly Qualified Teacher designation.  These changes should be a welcome improvement.

Jeff Frost is CATESOL’s legislative advocate.


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