No Child Left Behind Waivers and the Future of U.S. Education

No Child Left Behind Waivers and the Future of U.S. Education

Three main variables in education policy -- all recently in flux and one still in need of details -- will affect how the nation's neighborhood schools are run within the next several months. President Obama has framed investment in education as having the potential to power a renaissance in American cultural and technological pre-eminence -- or, if we miss this opportunity, to toss aside decades of innovation as other nations out-achieve us.

No Child Left Behind

Sept. 30, 2011 - Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, U.S. - Licensed resource teacher OLIVIA STEWART reads the story 'Ron's Big Mission' to second grade students at Earle Brown Elementary School in Brooklyn Center. This fall, Earle Brown Elementary was listed among the schools that must prepare to restructure after not making adequate annual progress under No Child Left Behind for several years running. Brooklyn Center superintendent Keith Lester has said that the school is working hard to improve and that it should not be restructured. (Credit Image: © Jim Gehrz/Minneapolis Star Tribune/ZUMAPRESS.com

First: On September 23, 2011, President Obama presented to the public details of the education funding portion of his proposed American Jobs Act of 2011. His priorities are to provide school modernization construction funds in the amount of $30 billion and federal funds of $30 billion to re-hire teachers. As many as 275,000 teachers around the country lost their jobs in the 2010-2011 school year, according to the American Association of School Administrators.

Second: Coincident with this news for cash-strapped schools was the announcement that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would waive schools' adherence to the Adequate Yearly Progress measurement of No Child Left Behind if states could show they'd changed their policies to align with certain Department of Education conditions. If Duncan doesn't do this, the flawed law's measures would deem 80% of the nation's schools as "failures" for not meeting the rather unrealistic standard of 100% competency in math and reading test scores by 2014.

Third: Race to the Top (RTTT), the DoE's initiative requiring that troubled schools take one of four "turnaround" strategies or be denied federal money, continues to be in effect, with some $200 million left to distribute in Round Three to the states out of $80 billion set aside in the Recovery Act. The four conditions are:

  1. schools must adopt "career and college-ready standards" as articulated in the Common Core Standards approved by 48 states,
  2. focus on the most troubled 5% of schools with drastic school closure and charter management takeover tactics
  3. give renewed attention to the bottom 15% of schools as measured by performance on standardized test scores,
  4. use data such as student performance on standardized test scores to evaulate teacher performance.

These have become linked to the receipt of No Child Left Behind funds by being one and the same as the conditions to obtain a waiver from that law. According to Education Week , the differences are minor and occur mostly in tone.

At the same time as the White House has pressed Congress for new policy fixes in the biggest law determining education policy, Congress has also struggled to develop either a reauthorization of the entirety of NCLB, or a piecemeal approach to spin off portions and pass the laws that way. As can be expected in this highly partisan environment, Democrats have tended to favor reauthorization of the entire law, with fixes incorporated into it, while Senate republicans appeared, in just the past few weeks, to opt for the piecemeal approach. Four bills to "fix" No Child Left Behind were spun off various items.

Yet the very latest news out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is that they will start marking up NCLB for reauthorization of the whole bill on October 18, 2011.

It's no wonder parental disgruntlement increases while important issues go unaddressed. Where does this leave schools? Because of a wave of severe underfunding, in part driven by falling home prices in the areas where schools are directly funded through local real estate property taxes, and in part the result of governor-pushed crises, such as Wisconsin's state budget deficit, at least 26 states will continue to cut dollars that flow to classrooms. Federal money is a crucial but tiny percentage of total school funding dollars. This fall, many parents faced larger class sizes, reductions in the electives offered, cuts to after-school and other programs, and fewer teachers, guidance counselors, and librarians in public schools.

What's in No Child Left Behind, Anyway?

Let's back up to ask the question: Why does No Child Left Behind need to be reauthorized anyway? Why can't we simply go forward with locally administered and state/local funding for schools?

First of all, No Child Left Behind covers Title I funding for high-need schools. While what you see on TV or in the movies might indicate an inner-city school often has many kids from low-income familes, but instead a large proportion of impoverished schools are rural -- see this map of rural poverty. Within each state, there's tremendous disparity between rural local school funding, in sparsely populated areas and deprived of a large real estate tax base, and urban centers with museums, theatres, vast libraries or sports facilities. This highlights the need for federal dollars to supplement state resources that fund education.

No Child Left Behind provides for teacher training and credentialing across the states (Title II) and creates rules for state and local educational agencies to apply for grants to run programs that help special ed, gifted and talented, and other specific populations, like homeless students. We can't simply ignore or ditch the law in favor of local/state solutions because, among other things, only the federal government can enter into contracts with sovereign Native American, Native Alaskan, and Native Hawaiian nations. For over 40 years, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, or NCLB's formal name), has been the law of the land and supplemented local and state education laws.

Some activist parents from both ends of the political spectrum have advocated for scrapping NCLB. Parents unhappy with the obviously unrealistic standards all children, even special needs children, must meet on high-stakes tests have launched UnitedOptOut.com to engage in civil disobedience and show their displeasure with narrowed curriculum (double blocks of remedial reading and math in the school day squeezing out other "electives" like history or science) and a testing industry that flourishes even as dollars for the classroom vanish. On the hard right, many believe the Department of Education is unconstitutional and should be abolished, along with the EPA, the FDA, and many other federal agencies.

However, the facts remain: States cannot enter into agreements with Native sovereign nations. Teacher training and credentialing cannot be left to vary from state to state. Schools must comply with federal civil rights laws securing equal access. Governor-led efforts to embrace the Common Core Standards across the 50 states have already been approved by 48 states with accompanying curriculum, framework, and testing requirements already set in motion. While each state enjoys great latitude in determining standards for education and assists cities and towns with the administration of schools, a larger entity must collect data across the 50 states, disburse and track federal funds, and coordinate the interactions of states themselves.

Finally, we have national laws regarding education because they are an expression of our values as a nation -- e pluribus unum, right? Public schools are the linchpin of their communities and knit together (or divide by inequality, as the case may be) Americans from every walk of life. Our schools are a powerful institution where many immigrants first learned the Pledge of Allegiance or sang "The Star Spangled Banner." Every nation on the planet provides for the cultivation of its children's abilities.

With this in mind, I put the entire ten-title No Child Left Behind law online in a searchable format, where people can make comments paragraph by paragraph. For one person to try to sift through the information is overwhelming; for all of us to crowdsource it and for people to dive in where the issues matter most to you is much more manageable.

Feel free to add links that you feel illuminate or ask questions of portions of the law along with your comments. In the weeks to come, I hope you'll join K12NN, BlogHer, and many grassroots parent groups as we explore in greater depth the issues in each part of all ten titles of No Child Left Behind. You'll be able to participate in a podcast featuring experts on education policy, who can explain what key parts of the law mean for your child's classroom. We'll be talking about the candidates' debates on education policy. And there will be more posts like this, that I hope clarify the issues and provide resources for people who want to dig deeper on their own.

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