Last week the Obama administration released changes to No Child Left Behind, now known as Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The New York Times observed that, “This ambitious agenda presents striking challenges of its own, both political and in terms of implementation.” Indeed, the proposed alterations have elicited divided reactions on both sides of the education reform movement.
The Obama proposal removes the 2014 deadline for schools to have all students scoring grade-level proficiency on state standardized tests. Instead students are to be “college and career ready” by 2020. States will be allowed to include other subjects such as science, history, and foreign language in overall achievement measurements.
The focus is now on measuring students’ yearly academic growth, school graduation rates, and college enrollment, not just grade level proficiency. The proposal rewards successful schools and requires school performance to be publicized, but it also lessens the federal consequences on performance. Lastly, the public-school-choice option for students in low-performing and unsafe schools, would be eliminated. Still, the teacher unions were not impressed.
“We are disappointed by this first effort by the administration to rectify the considerable problems in the current federal education law ” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association. Reaction from both parties was cautiously positive.
“The blueprint identifies many of the right goals for improving our schools and helping all students achieve their fullest potential,” says Rep. John Kline (R-MN) and ranking minority member on the House Committee on Education and Labor. Committee chair George Miller (D-CA) believes “these improvements will require dramatic reforms to regain our role as a world leader in education. But if we are successful, I believe we can build a solid economic foundation for our future generations.”
Even education reformers felt pulled in two directions. “Education reformers on both sides of the aisle are torn between pressing their preferred policies from the shores of the Potomac and acknowledging that Uncle Sam is too far removed from the realities of schools, communities, and classrooms to do much good without doing lots of harm,” wrote Mike Petrilli a vice-president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Currently under NCLB, public schools failing to meet the mark for the federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) report are required to offer students the option to attend another district school. Similarly, public schools identified as persistently dangerous must give students a chance to attend a safe school. The decision to remove these provisions is a setback to students. It could, however, give states incentives to enact broader choice reforms.
They have traditionally advocated for state and local control in years prior to NCLB. As the public school monopoly became increasingly dependent on the federal department and its spending programs, reform battles were fought at the federal level, leading to NCLB. Should reformers prefer that school choice be mandated by federal regulation or adhere to the principles of decentralization, giving more control to the state and local levels? A look north will provide an answer.
Canada has a decentralized education system, with no federal ministry of education or federal cabinet officer charged with overseeing education. With no involvement by Ottawa, the Canadian education policy field is wide open at the provincial and local levels. Several Canadian provinces have taken advantage of this freedom to provide direct per-student grants, similar to vouchers, to private independent and religious schools. These school-choice programs have empowered parents of all income levels and led to higher student achievement.
In a study by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, researchers found that “achievement scores are not only higher generally in the provinces that fund independent schools, but also higher particularly among students from less advantaged backgrounds.” Not only does Canada outscore the United States in international tests, but the pro-school-choice provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario all significantly outscore the U.S. in fourth-grade reading. The American underperformance is all the more embarrassing given that the United States outspends Canada by 20 percent per pupil in the latest international statistics.
Like his health care initiative, Obama’s Washington-centric education “reform” efforts are destined for failure. Without competition and choice, more federal micromanaging of education simply means more government ineptitude, futility and failure. No wonder Barack Obama sends his kids to private school.