‘Every Child Achieves’ Won’t Fix The Fed-Ed Farce

‘Every Child Achieves’ Won’t Fix The Fed-Ed Farce

Bills to rewrite No Child Left Behind put Republicans in a bad political position and expand the federal role in education.
Joy Pullmann

Tuesday, the House and Senate are scheduled to take up separate bills to replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB). While out here in the hinterlands normal people are calling for an end to know-nothing bureaucrats telling local schools how to train teachers despite zero scientifically valid evidence about what improves teaching, up in The Capitol our rulers still believe themselves uniquely qualified to forge boldly where research and common sense has never gone before.

To wit: Sen. Lamar Alexander attempting to slather the “bipartisan” (i.e. crappy as a county fair port-a-potty) Senate bill he’s coauthored with a whole lotta pig lipstick. At 792 pages, Alexander’s “Every Child Achieves Act” (ECAA) is 122 longer than NCLB. Apparently, coauthoring a bill that is a fifth longer than the law it’s intended to replace means “more state and local control” to Alexander.

Democrats are happy enough with the bill to give Alexander enough votes to pass it, so it’s conservative Republicans he’s got to woo to get this monstrosity to President Obama. So he’s hitting all the notes they want to hear—except they’re false notes. Here’s a big one: “The bill expressly prohibits the federal government from mandating or incentivizing any particular set of academic standards, such as Common Core.” While some portions of Alexander’s bill do technically prohibit the administrative state from pushing Common Core, in others it appears to give educrats precisely this authority, as a bill analysis from the American Principles Project details. That’s part of the problem with an 800-page bill: It’s easy for the thing to contradict itself.

Every Child Achieves What the National School Board Says

Alexander also claims his proposal will mean “fewer tests for our students.” That’s just plain false. (Also, please never tag my kids with the collective “our.” They’re not yours or anyone else’s, ever, no matter what Melissa Harris-Perry says.) He’s sidestepping here the truth that his bill erases not one currently mandated federal test, despite the unprecedented populist pressure for a massive reduction in federal test-twisting.

What it does do is reduce federal sanctions for state noncompliance, which Alexander extrapolates will mean less pressure at the local level, thus potentially translating into fewer pre-tests. In other words, while he apparently doesn’t believe in the negative unintended consequences of central planning, a well-established reality, he’s willing to tout potential, accidental positive consequences as a sure thing. Further, the thing he’s relying on to achieve this supposed reduction in testing insanity, Alexander’s promise that “the bill will remove the high stakes attached by Washington to those test results,” is a flat-out deception. As Jane Robbins and Heidi Huber write for Townhall.com:

ECAA also continues to mandate that results of high-stakes assessments be used in state accountability systems. For example, the bill requires states to use assessment scores, progress toward readiness for ‘college and the workforce,’ and high-school graduation rates as a ‘substantial’ portion of a school’s grade. So not only must states ensure 95% participation in the assessments, they must use the results to rate their schools.

Wow, sounds like those tests won’t matter much to schools at all, and that this bill “will put an end to the national school board.” Doesn’t it?

Alexander’s bill directly reduces parents’ freedoms to say which government tests their children will take while in school.

Perhaps even more crucially, as Robbins and Huber note, Alexander’s bill directly reduces parents’ freedoms to say which government tests their children will take while in school, by closing a NCLB loophole that currently allows them to excuse their children from tests: “ECAA doesn’t ignore the ‘opt out’ movement – in fact, it adds language that effectively encourages the states to lower the boom on noncompliant students and parents.”

The bill extends federal authority not just to the poor schools that directly receive federal funds (in poor schools’ case, that’s Title I), but to all public schools, whether they directly receive federal funds or not. That Title I money, by the way, gave the Obama administration leverage to bribe Virginia schools into its preferred transgender policies, over massive parent protests. Does anyone think it, or a potential Hillary Clinton administration, would have any qualms about using an expansion of power over all schools in the same way? If you do, you’re horribly naive.

This bill totally puts an end to the “national school board,” right? No wonder Democrats are happy to sign on.

A Is For Scamming Parents About Accountability

Alexander’s bill perpetuates a key overreach of NCLB: Having the federal government pick state curriculum winners and losers through testing mandates and “oversight,” even though it’s technically illegal for the U.S. Department of Education to have anything to do with what children learn.

This year’s first iteration of national Common Core tests represents the second year of entirely lost information about what U.S. children actually know in reading and math.

Education policy watchers like me have been treated to a blizzard of breathless press releases this spring and summer, all claiming that poor children and minority children and every child everywhere desperately needs the federal government to make states administer tests, or otherwise those horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad local schools will lie about student performance to parents, and those kids will never have a chance at a bright future! Please, Uncle Sam, save us from our evil selves! We know you’re not stuffed chock-full of human beings with the same foibles and weaknesses as those lying, ignoramus teachers and principals out in the states, except granted far more power to harm far more people when you make errors!

What these national test-lovers fail to realize is that Uncle Sam’s testing policies have already irrevocably harmed both transparency and reliable information-gathering, those two key, pedestrian goals Republican politicians are susceptible to believing the feds can actually ensure. The Obama administration has used the wide berth of authority Congress has granted the U.S. Department of Education to jerk around state tests in the past several years, such that this year’s first iteration of national Common Core tests represents the second year of entirely lost information about what U.S. children actually know in reading and math. And Alexander’s bill would codify this federal power. So would the House NCLB rewrite, known as HR5.

Last year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan granted states the power to use, instead of their traditional state tests, trial Common Core tests, which, as trial runs, were not statistically valid measures of what children know. This means one could not compare kids’ results in 2013 with their results in 2014. This year, another huge amount of test-switching chaos ensued again because states found national Common Core tests to be, as critics predicted, unwieldy, expensive, error-ridden, and unreliable. This means 2015’s results cannot be compared to 2014’s, which cannot be compared to 2013’s. It also means that, for many states, next year’s test results will also not be comparable, since many states will be using different tests yet again as a result of “well-meaning” federal intervention.

Starve the Administrative State, Or It Will Eat Everything

This means that, for a wide swath of America, we’ve lost reliable test results for at least four years. We do not know how American children are doing, really. But no one is sounding the alarm about that. No one is going crazy that we have little reliable idea of how minority and poor children have been doing for a third of their K-12 careers. Not even Republicans are paying attention to the evidence that federal money and mandates have not helped poor and minority children in more than 60 years of increasing centralization.

If it were really about poor children, we would be hearing fuss about things that are actually hurting poor children. But we’re not.

That makes me think that all the fuss about how we need tests so we can help poor kids is really a cover for nationalizing U.S. education. If it were really about poor children, we would be hearing fuss about things that are actually hurting poor children. But we’re not. We have special-interest groups and Secretary Duncan using poor children’s faces and plights in a cynical ploy to advance a policy agenda.

The more power the federal government has over education, the more it has over testing policies, and therefore what children learn and how. Testing has proven to be a mighty lever, from which can flow myriad central controls, as the Obama administration has also amply demonstrated. The way to fix this is not to hope no one will be as bad a power-monger as Obama, but to axe that possibility by actually limiting federal power and acknowledging the reality that federal mandates are not helping, and cannot help, children. This bill does the opposite.

The APP review provides myriad instances within this legislation that extend unilateral federal control over what, remember, functions best when it remains a state and local issue. The bill actually tends to set up, not a national school board, but a national education tyrant, because of the huge amount of unilateral power it vests in the U.S. Education Secretary.

The bill requires states to come to the secretary, hat in hand, with their plans for improving schools, which for some insane reason he or she gets to, like Nero, give the thumb’s up or thumb’s down. It also subordinates state legislatures to the education secretary’s whims if their state takes federal money. This is not limited federal power. It is unlimited federal power. If the Obama administration’s behavior hasn’t taught Republican leaders like Alexander that’s a problem, nothing will.

Americans Want Less Fed Ed, Not More

Its behavior has taught Americans something, however. The annual Friedman Foundation poll, out this month, found that 77 percent of Americans say the federal government’s performance in K-12 education has been “fair” or “poor.” The most recent annual Pi Kappa Delta/Gallup poll found that 84 percent of Americans think states and localities, not the federal government, should have the most influence over what children learn. That’s an uptick in local-control sentiment, which pollsters attribute to Common Core and NCLB. Seize the day, senators!

This bill moves the country towards more central planning and authoritarian federal license.

Further, ECAA is slated to operate for six years, taking a rethink of federal education policy away from the next president and Congress. If the next president happens to be a Democrat, this bill is a good deal for Democrats. If it doesn’t, it’s a horrible deal for Republicans. In other words, it’s a political lose-lose for Republicans. Just tactically, why would Republican leadership do something so stupid?

It’s not only a sham show in the Senate. House leaders are attempting to slip through the exact same NCLB rewrite bill they had to pull in February for lack of votes. And why did it lack votes? Because leadership refused to allow votes on amendments that would actually limit the federal role in education, most prominently the A-PLUS proposal, which would allow states to tell the feds to stick their ignorant meddling where the sun don’t shine and still get their education dollars back as a block grant. Some senators are also considering amendments that would promote actual innovation in testing.

These should not just be amendments. They should be make-or-break, central components of a truly conservative NCLB rewrite. Otherwise, why would anyone prefer Republican education policy? So far, it’s just proven to be Democrat education policy cloaked in empty right-wing rhetoric. At least Democrats are honest about their desires to hand out other people’s money like candy with no clue where it’s coming from or proof it will have positive effects and despite the evidence showing fed-led ed benefits no one while handcuffing everyone except paper pushers to chronic frustration. Let them own that shit show, like the Obama administration rightly owns Common Core and federal policy chaos.

ECAA moves the country towards more central planning and authoritarian federal license. That’s precisely opposite of where we should be moving. If the central-planning cronies in Alexander’s office can’t think of any way to reduce the federal role in education, here are some ideas.

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of The Federalist and author of the forthcoming "The Education Invasion: How Common Core Fights Parents for Control of American Kids," from Encounter Books.

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