This week, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce will consider the last two major remaining portions of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), when they mark-up the Student Success Act and the Encouraging Innovative and Effective Teachers Act. Last year, the Committee considered three other elementary and secondary education bills that made improvements to charter schools, consolidated and repealed unnecessary and ineffective federal education programs, and provided more flexibility for states and communities to allocate federal education resources based on their individual needs, not those of bureaucrats in Washington. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee reported a comprehensive re-write of the ESEA last year, and it is now pending consideration by the full Senate. Congress is the closest it has ever been in a decade to enacting changes to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that will return more decisions about educating our children to parents, teachers, and principals, recognize teachers for student success, and eliminate ineffective federal education programs.
However, there is still much work to be done to hold states, school districts, and educators accountable for increasing student performance and narrowing the academic-achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers. When the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) reports that two-thirds of our children are still not performing at the proficient or advanced level in reading and math, policy makers should not weaken accountability provisions or eliminate options for parents to find better educational alternatives. Students must have educational options available so that they can leave a failing school or receive tutoring services that help them succeed academically.
The Student Results Act, as introduced, denied parents these options by repealing the school choice requirements in the NCLB. But Congressman John Kline (R., Minn.) has made some much-needed adjustments to the Student Results Act that will require local school districts to offer school-choice options to parents, and guarantees there will be a specific amount of federal funds available for these options. Congressman Kline’s new language also ensures that school districts with the greatest number of low-performing schools receive priority for funds if there is not enough money to accommodate all schools in the district. Unlike the Senate bill or President Obama’s NCLB blueprint, the Kline language gives these options to all parents and students who want alternatives, rather than just those who attend schools in the worst 5 percent. While the language still is not strong enough, it is a step in the right direction to ensure that parents, particularly disadvantaged parents, have several different educational alternatives available to them.
Republicans have been leaders in the school-choice movement for decades at the local, state, and federal levels. Charter schools, public-school choice, after-school tutoring by private providers who are not part of the school bureaucracy, tuition tax credits, and private-school choice are all ideas that Republicans have endorsed and fought hard to include in education legislation at the state and federal level. Overall, such choices have given disadvantaged students a chance to receive a quality education, go on to college, and pursue their dreams. School choice has also motivated many public schools to change and focus on increasing student academic achievement, often working together with charter schools or other, higher achieving public schools to adapt their techniques, models, and strategies. Many of these schools have improved ti the point where their students are performing at or above grade level.
Republicans must continue to provide leadership in education reform, especially for school choice. Current school-choice options now in the law must be retained, and additional choice options expanded, in any reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Student Success Act currently allows school districts to provide private-school choice as an option for parents, a major improvement over the current statute. The Student Success Act must also ensure that local school districts provide parents with numerous meaningful school-choice alternatives, not just one or two options. Educators have been reluctant to provide other educational alternatives, and teachers’ unions, in particular, have opposed the creation of public charter schools and private-school alternatives. Unless the language is strengthened to reflect the above concerns, they will continue to resist school-choice alternatives.
While the accountability provisions in the Student Success Act are still much too weak and provide no consequences for states and school districts who fail to narrow the achievement gap and increase student performance, Congressman Kline’s school-choice additions are commendable. These provisions will ensure that parents and students are offered educational alternatives and are not stuck in a persistently failing school with no way out. As this legislation moves along, a balance between academic accountability and local flexibility must be found so that we will not return to the days when student academic results or lack thereof did not matter.
The No Child Left Behind Act forced educators and policy makers to concentrate on student academic results by measuring how disadvantaged students performed and issued consequences for those that did not make significant academic gains. Those principles must not be lost. Ensuring school-choice options are available is the first step.
— Sally Gray Lovejoy is an expert on education issues at the American Action Forum.