The Future of No Child Left Behind Remains Unclear

February 9, 2012

Government Relations Update - Education

Today both President Obama and Congress announced actions to reform the No Child Left Behind Act. That legislation, more popularly known as NCLB, reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 2002 and expired on September 30, 2007. Since NCLB’s expiration Congress and both the Bush and Obama administrations have floated reauthorization plans and ideas in fits and starts. However, today’s announcements by President Obama and John Kline, the Chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, are incremental steps forward in settling the future of NCLB.

President Obama announced at the White House today that ten states—Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee—would receive waivers from what many consider the most onerous provisions of NCLB, including the mandate that all students must be proficient in English and math by the end of the 2013-2014 school year. In order to be eligible to receive what the Department of Education has called ESEA flexibility, states must have already adopted college- and career-ready standards in reading/language arts and mathematics designed to raise the achievement of all students; establish a differentiated recognition, accountability, and support system that gives credit for progress towards college- and career-readiness; and set basic guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation and support systems. Eleven states applied for the waiver package in the first round of applications and only New Mexico was denied. The Department is working with New Mexico to reshape its application so that state may be granted a waiver in the future. 

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Chairman Kline introduced his two pieces of ESEA reauthorization legislation—the Student Success Act and the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act—and announced that his Committee would hold a markup on February 16. This pair of bills reduces the role of the federal government in educating students and allows states and districts more flexibility to set academic standards and spend federal education dollars than they have under the current NCLB law. Additionally it requires states and districts to evaluate teachers, using student performance as a significant factor in those evaluations.

Even with this new burst of activity surrounding NCLB its future still remains unclear. While the ten states announced today received waivers from the law, it still remains in full effect for the 40 other states that have not received waivers. The Obama Administration has signaled that it hopes all states ultimately receive a waiver, but only 28 additional states and Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have signaled their intent to apply for waivers in the second application round. Therefore, even if all of the second round applicants were approved there would still be 11 states that would be governed by all of the provisions of NCLB, with 39 others, plus DC and Puerto Rico operating with a different set of federal rules.

To complicate matters, the likelihood of Congress passing an ESEA reauthorization package that both houses agree to seems remote at this time. The bills introduced in the House today differ significantly from the legislation passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in October. One glaring difference is the lack of a section on teacher evaluation in the Senate bill while one of the pillars of Chairman Kline’s Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act is having states and districts create teacher evaluation systems. With their differing perspectives on what the federal role in educating the nations’ children should be it is hard to imagine that the Democrat-controlled Senate or the Republican-controlled House will be able to come to an agreement on a legislative package to reauthorize ESEA during this session of Congress. Thus, the much-reviled No Child Left Behind Act looks like it will still be the law of the land, even if some of its provisions have been blunted by the waivers announced today and future waivers, for the 2012-2013 school year. 

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