Why Republicans Changed Their Minds on School Accountability

8 minute read

When it comes to federal accountability for failing schools, Republicans and Democrats have now almost completely switched places.

Spurred by President George W. Bush, Republicans in Congress helped pass No Child Left Behind in 2002, giving the federal government more oversight under the idea that it would put traditional public schools to the test, literally.

At the time, many Democrats were suspicious of the top-down approach, concerned it would be used to micromanage public school teachers or justify cutting federal spending. But they went along, with the backing of liberal iconoclasts like George Miller, making the bill a bipartisan breakthrough.

Thirteen years later, the two sides have come together again on a replacement for the much-maligned No Child Left Behind. And the details of the bill, unveiled this week, show how much the issue has changed.

Drafted by House and Senate negotiators from both parties, the bill marks the first time since the 1980s that the federal government’s role in the education sectors—particularly the Education Department’s power to intervene in failing and low-performing schools—has been rolled back rather than enhanced.

Still, it doesn’t go as far as many conservatives would like. The law keeps in place mandatory testing from third through eighth grade, as under No Child Left Behind, requires states to track and report the academic progress of low-income and minority students, and creates a new preschool initiative.

On Tuesday, Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, urged members to kill the measure, calling it “a step backwards for conservative education policy.”

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“It’s middle ground,” said Charles Barone, the director of policy at Democrats for Education Reform. “I don’t think it’s perfect policy by any stretch of the imagination, but it has some of what both sides wanted. The folks primarily concerned with rolling back the federal role in education were handed a big treat.”

The language of the bill was made public on Monday. The House is expected to vote on it Wednesday, with the Senate following suit by mid-December.

As of now, the bill, renamed the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, appears to enjoy qualified bipartisan support, and has earned endorsements from some civil rights groups, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Governors Association to School Superintendents Association, and the two biggest teachers unions.

Several education advocates who spoke to TIME on background, pending public reactions from their organizations, described it as “the best that could be expected,” given both the politics of a divided Congress and the pressing need to repeal No Child Left Behind.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said that “although there are areas of the Every Student Succeeds Act that fall short, we believe this bill is stronger for the most vulnerable students than the outdated No Child Left Behind and current ESEA waivers.”

Even so, the bill marks a major victory for Republicans, who have spent the better part of President Obama’s time in office railing against what they see as federal government overreach in the education sector, first with a flurry of No Child Left Behind waivers and then with Common Core state standards.

ESSA significantly relaxes the federal government’s role in overhauling failing schools. Under ESSA, each state, district or school would develop its own accountability system, according to its own needs, and then set up its own timeline for when, and how, interventions would take place.

ESSA requires that states’ accountability systems incorporate students’ test scores, graduation rates, and proficiency in English. But besides that, states are given considerable leeway in determining how much weight each measure has and which additional factors, such as school safety, student activities, or teacher engagement, will count toward defining a school’s success.

Similarly, ESSA requires states to identify schools that finish in the bottom 5% of their cohort and that have graduation rates of less than 67% (so-called “drop-out factories”) for no more than three years in a row. But what, precisely, must happen to those failing schools or districts after that up-to-three-year cut-off is left to states and districts to hash out on their own.

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The bill also gives schools—not states or the federal Education Department—the job of coming up with plans to serve and monitor the progress of so-called “subgroup” students, including minorities, low-income students, those with disabilities, and English-language learners. That’s a major win for conservatives, who have long pushed for the return of “local rule” in education, and source of some concern for civil rights advocates, who point out that historically, states have acted aggressively to serve African American and Latino students only after threats of federal government intervention.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, the New York chapter of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, along with a coalition of nearly 100 other civil rights groups, decried the bill for weakening federal oversight.

“What we will be looking for is backstops,” Brenda Calderon, an education policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza, told TIME. “We understand that there is increased flexibility for states, but we’d like to see that the [Education] Secretary will in fact be able to have a say in schools that are not serving subgroups.” Over the lifetime of the bill, the population of Latino students is expected to grow, representing roughly one in three public school students nationwide, she added.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the liberal standard bearer, also raised concerns that states and districts have not always voluntarily implemented accountability measures or policies that adequately serve its minority populations. “The idea that we would pass a major piece of legislation about education and, in effect, shovel money into states and say, ‘Do with it what you want’, and not have some accountability for how that money is spent, I think, is appalling,” Warren said in a meeting in late November with civil rights groups on Capitol Hill.

Peter Cunningham, former assistant secretary at the Education Department and a past adviser to Secretary Arne Duncan, told Politico that the ESSA puts Obama “in a difficult position.” It asks him to sign “onto something that clearly empowers states to be less aggressive in addressing inequity,” he said.

One victory for the accountability hawks? ESSA requires states to track the performance of individual subgroups, rather than lumping them together in what’s known as “super subgroups,” which has the effect of obscuring certain groups of students, like long-term English learners, who tend to fall between the slats.

No Child Left Behind was designed with the goal that every student in the country would be “proficient” in math and reading by 2014. But as that deadline came and went, the unintended consequences of the law became front-and-center: cheating scandals erupted; states lowered standards so their students would appear to meet benchmarks; teachers complained that the law robbed students of joyful learning; class time was increasingly devoted to “teaching to the test,” at the expense of art, music, and science.

More recently, a flurry of more than 40 federal waivers, designed to allow states to side step the punitive consequences of not reaching “total proficiency,” contributed to the conservative accusation that, under Obama, the federal Department of Education had become a “national school board.”

Meanwhile, in the last four years, conservatives have also turned against the Common Core, a set of state-based education standards, designed by governors and state chiefs of schools. After Education Secretary Arne Duncan tied the disbursal of federal funds under the program Race to the Top to whether states had adopted strict standards of any sort—Common Core being one such option—conservatives mutinied, decrying the state standards as “Obamacore.”

The nearly decade-long debate over how to rewrite No Child Left Behind was colored by this growing distrust on the part of conservatives of the feds’ role in education.

In recent years, conservative lawmakers, sometimes inspired by Tea Party protests on the subject, began pushing for eliminating the Education Department entirely, and instead giving states and districts exclusive power to police their schools. The conservative turn away from accountability was further fueled by the growth of charter schools, school vouchers, and other market-driven solutions, which accountability data showed were not the quick-fix many had hoped they would be.

Meanwhile, Democrats, backed by an increasingly engaged continent of business and civil rights groups, like the NAACP and the Urban League, hopped aboard the federal accountability express. They argue that collecting good data on subgroups of students, like minorities, low-income kids, and those with disabilities, and tying that data to accountability measures helps target attention and resources to the neediest kids.

ESSA leaves the decision of how to help the neediest kids to the states.

“The silver lining here may be that, because states and districts have to come up with their own accountability and intervention plans, they’ll have more ownership,” Barone said. “Before they could say, ‘The feds are requiring us to do this. We don’t like it, but we have to do it.’ Now they have to own their own plan.”

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Write to Haley Sweetland Edwards at haley.edwards@time.com