Power to the states: Congress passes No Child Left Behind rewrite

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 12/9/15. Jacky Venzor takes notes about waves and frequency during Anthony Goad's 7th grade science class at Tyner Academy Middle School on Wednesday, December 9, 2015.

National education policy has made a U-turn, and decision-making power has been shifted away from Washington and handed to the states.

The U.S. Senate voted 85-12 on Wednesday to approve the Every Student Succeeds Act, which rewrites much of the highly criticized No Child Left Behind education law of 2002.

The new legislation substantially limits the federal government's role in public education by granting states autonomy in the evaluation of school and teacher performance. It also promises to curtail unnecessary student testing at the state and local level.

"People don't really want Washington in charge of public schools," said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who sponsored the Every Student Succeeds Act. The legislation is headed to President Barack Obama's desk and is expected to be signed into law today.

Lawmakers have been working to reauthorize the top-down, one-size-fits-all approach of No Child Left Behind since 2007, but attempts were continually stalled due to a broader debate over the federal government's role in public education. Both sides of the aisle compromised to draft Every Student Succeeds, which still requires states to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, and at least once in high school.

States and local districts also must continue to break out test data for individual schools and subgroups of students to ensure everyone is making progress.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., co-authored the bill with Alexander. She said the legislation will hold underperforming schools responsible to ensure all students - minority children, poor kids and others - get a quality education, The Associated Press reported.

Under Every Student Succeeds, states have discretion in setting goals, determining what to hold schools and districts accountable for, and deciding how to intervene in low-performing schools or when goals are not met.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen praised the bill for the flexibility it provides.

"Tennessee is in a remarkably positive place in making the transition to ESSA as we have created a solid foundation of rigorous standards, aligned assessment, increased accountability and a focus on low performing schools," McQueen said. "We will continue to monitor and improve in all of these areas as we empower districts to make the best decisions for their students and communities."

Many states, including Tennessee, have been operating for years under waivers distributed by the U.S. Department of Education that provide flexibility from No Child Left Behind mandates.

Robert Sharp, assistant superintendent of education and leadership support for the Hamilton County Department of Education, said schools here are not likely to experience any major impacts due to Every Child Succeeds because of the waiver Tennessee has been operating under.

"Several aspects included in the re-authorization are already in place in Tennessee," Sharp said. "Challenging standards, increased support for the lowest performing schools, subgroup data as part of accountability and gap closure analysis are all current state strategies."

What Every Student Succeeds does for Tennessee is guarantee existing policies and trends already in place under the waiver continue into the future, and it gives the state power to make adjustments without seeking Washington's approval.

Dan Liner, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, called the legislation "a win for every student and every teacher in Hamilton County."

Liner said he is encouraged by the reauthorization's focus on instruction and achievement instead of increased testing, as Every Student Succeeds encourages states to set caps on the amount of time students spend testing.

Georgia's State School Superintendent Richard Woods said he is also pleased with the act's passing.

"Congress saw what we at the state and local levels have seen for years: we test way too much and the federal government has taken over education, which is a constitutional obligation of states and local districts," Woods said in a statement.

He continued to say states must balance accountability with responsibility, and that is why he established a task force to conduct a testing audit to determine ways the state can eliminate unnecessary testing at the state and local levels.

Every Student Succeeds also includes a focus on early childhood education, the professional development of teachers and the inclusion of wraparound services and interventions for students.

The new law also restricts the U.S. Department of Education from mandating or encouraging states to adopt Common Core State Standards.

The House of Representatives passed Every Student Succeeds last week in a bipartisan vote of 359-64.

U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., voted against the legislation because he felt it fails to sufficiently curtail excessive government overreach in the nation's school system.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.