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Rewrite of No Child Left Behind Poised to Pass

The end of the widely reviled No Child Left Behind Act — and Texas’ standoff with the federal government over that 2002 law — is in sight, to the elation of the state education commissioner, superintendents and teachers.

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The end of the widely reviled No Child Left Behind Act — and Texas’ standoff with the federal government over that 2002 law — is in sight, to the elation of the state education commissioner, superintendents and teachers.

A rewrite of President George W. Bush’s signature education policy is poised to win final passage in Congress this week after winning preliminary approval in the Senate on Tuesday. The rewrite, dubbed the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” has already been overwhelmingly approved by the House. The legislation has been praised for shrinking the federal government’s role — and giving states and local governments more flexibility — in shaping K-12 policy. 

While critics are scant, some believe the measure diminishes Washington's role in public education too drastically.

Its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act — the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 — was designed to bolster public education nationwide and close racial and socioeconomic student achievement gaps. But it imposed strict standards — and penalties — on schools nationwide that were widely considered unachievable, including a nationwide requirement that 100 percent of students pass reading and math exams by 2014.

The Obama administration had dealt with No Child Left Behind by having the U.S. Department of Education dole out waivers to Texas and nearly every state allowing them to opt out of certain mandates on the condition they make improvements to schools.

The Every Child Succeeds Act has been described as a true compromise in that it addresses the concerns Republicans and Democrats have had with No Child Left Behind but does not make anyone completely happy.

The new measure does not include a much-maligned No Child Left Behind requirement that states make all their school districts use the same teacher evaluation system — or that those systems be based, in part, on student test scores. In fact, the bill explicitly says the federal government has no role in teacher evaluations. That had been the primary sticking point between Texas and the U.S. Department of Education as the state sought to maintain its waiver from No Child Left Behind or risk sanctions, such as losing flexibility over how school districts spend federal dollars meant to bolster failing schools. 

The department granted Texas a temporary extension to its waiver this fall but also placed the state on “high risk” status because Education Commissioner Michael Williams refused to implement such a teacher evaluation system statewide. Williams has said he has neither the authority under state law to do so nor the appetite, being a big believer in local control.

The likelihood of that sticking point disappearing is significant for Williams, who announced his resignation in October, as it would be one of the biggest issues left unresolved when he steps down Jan. 1.

“I’m optimistic,” Williams said in an interview last week before the House approved the bill in a 359-64 vote. “It is conceivable that this issue does, indeed, go away.” 

Every indication is the bill will become law. On Tuesday, the Senate advanced the legislation 84-12; A final vote is expected Wednesday, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said. And President Obama has said he will sign the bill into law if it reaches his desk.

The rewrite is long in coming; Congress was supposed to replace No Child Left Behind when it expired eight years ago. 

In Texas, state officials like Williams — a Republican — and teachers' unions backed by Democrats both praise the legislation but say it is not perfect.

Williams praised the exclusion in the bill of the 100-percent proficiency requirement. Texas had been exempt from that requirement under its waiver and still would be far from meeting it, as would many other states, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman said. Under the Every Child Succeeds Act, states would instead decide how to gauge student progress toward their own academic goals. 

“I think many of our superintendents would applaud that,” Williams said.

For teacher and administrator groups, the most exciting aspect of the legislation is that it gives more power to the states to devise their own accountability and assessment systems — opening the door for a continued de-emphasis on standardized testing.

The bill still requires states to test students in grades 3 through 8 annually and once in high school, and to report those scores broken down by race and other categories. But it would allow states to evaluate student progress using factors other than test scores — like dropout rates. It also would give states more freedom in crafting methods to turn around failing schools.

Things like dropout rates and percentages of students completing Advanced Placement courses “should be used in lieu of, or in conjunction with, testing,” said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association. “These, to us, are truer measures of how well students are doing in the classroom.”

The bill is not perfect because it doesn’t “abolish testing,” Robison quipped, but he described it in largely positive terms.

He and Amy Beneski, a lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Administrators, said they are excited that the rewrite may give additional flexibility to a commission the Legislature created this year to develop new ways to assess students and hold public schools accountable.

“The timing couldn’t be better,” Beneski said, citing Gov. Greg Abbott’s impending appointment of Williams’ replacement. “We talk about wanting additional flexibility from the feds. OK, well, we’re potentially going to get it now, so now it’s in the state’s court to make those changes.”

Disclosure: The Texas Association of School Administrators and Texas State Teachers Association are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here. 

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