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New education law shifts federal influence over public schools

December 10, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
After years of debate, President Obama and Congress have finally agreed on a new education law. The Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor of No Child Left Behind, still requires annual testing of some students, but it does not give the federal government the power to impose penalties on underperforming schools. Alyson Klein of Education Week joins Judy Woodruff for a closer look.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: After years of criticism and debate over the federal law known as No Child Left Behind, the president and Congress have finally agreed on a new education law, one that aims to shift some of the federal government’s influence over 100,000 public schools.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:
A Christmas miracle, a bipartisan bill signing right here.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama praised the new bill called the Every Student Succeeds Act as he prepared to sign it into law at the White House.

It still requires annual testing of students between third and eighth grade, as well as once during high school. But, unlike the prior law signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, it doesn’t give the federal government power to impose penalties on underperforming schools.

President Obama, who had waived those penalties, but had backed many features of the law for years, acknowledged the shortcomings of No Child Left Behind.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It didn’t always consider the specific needs of each community. It led to too much testing during classroom time. It often forced schools and school districts into cookie-cutter reforms that didn’t always produce the kinds of results that we wanted to see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The new law passed with unusually large bipartisan margins in the Senate and the House, a point made yesterday by one of its sponsors, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R), Tennessee: Not many things this important pass the U.S. Senate 85-12.

(LAUGHTER)

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: And we’re — this is a big Christmas present from the Senate and the House, and it’s going down to the president, and I hope he wraps a big red ribbon around it and sends it out to 100 million students and 3.4 million teachers in 100,000 pubic schools.

JUDY WOODRUFF: States and school districts will now have more responsibility for judging how schools are doing and how to utilize testing. Teacher evaluations, long a subject of intense debate, will not necessarily be tied to tests.

But there remain many questions about the practical impact: Will states take action when needed? And will some districts return to a time of ignoring the needs of struggling and minority students?

So, let’s take a closer look at what this law changes and some of those questions and criticisms of it.

Alyson Klein is a reporter with Education Week, an organization we collaborate with on education stories. She was at the White House today for the president’s signing.

Alyson, thank you for being here.

So, what are the main ways that this new bill is different from the old one?

ALYSON KLEIN, Education Week: So, as you mentioned at the top, this new law would really broaden the authority of states when it comes to turning around low-performing schools, evaluating teachers, and deciding what exactly to hold schools accountable for.

States, as you said, will still have to test students in grades three through eight and once in high school, but they will have more say over how much those tests count in gauging a school’s performance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is that a significant change in the testing requirement, the testing that’s going to go on?

ALYSON KLEIN: Yes, the testing will continue, but schools will also be asked to focus on other factors, things like school climate, teacher engagement, student engagement, access to advance course work. So those things will be looked at in gauging a school’s rating or performance alongside tests.

JUDY WOODRUFF:
What about teacher performance? We mentioned that that will not now be necessarily tied to how the tests go. But what does this new law say about teachers?

ALYSON KLEIN: So, this law gives states the authority to decide exactly how to evaluate their teachers, and states may decide to kick that responsibility to school districts.

States certainly could continue to hold teachers accountable for student growth in test scores, but it would be up to them and not the federal government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is there a sense, Alyson Klein, that there — that it will feel different in terms of a federal mandate for public schools?

ALYSON KLEIN: Well, states will really be able to take much more ownership, I think the sponsors would say, of their systems.

So, how much change we will see in schools will end up being up to the state and district level. Certainly, teachers unions, governors, state chiefs are expecting to see a more holistic approach to education going forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF:
Now, we mentioned this passed by a very big, unusual bipartisan — large bipartisan margin, but we do still hear some criticism out there.

For example, a number of conservative members of Congress didn’t vote for it. And one of their main arguments, they say it still has too much a federal presence, despite the changes.

ALYSON KLEIN: Sure.

Well, obviously, there are some folks running for president, for instance, Senator Ted Cruz, who opposed the bill in a statement…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

ALYSON KLEIN: … who would like to see there be no Department of Education.

So, obviously, even though this would constrain the Department of Education, some say it would put a straitjacket around the secretary, it doesn’t get rid of the department altogether, which is what some folks would like to see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, there is still is — there clearly are still some federal mandates in here that are connected to the money.

ALYSON KLEIN: Yes. Yes, absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF:
The other criticism you hear, that you see today, is that — I guess you could say it’s from the left, but it’s those who are saying that there is not enough in here that requires schools to do something for those students who are academically struggling, those students who are in underperforming schools.

How do the proponents defend it from that criticism?

ALYSON KLEIN: So, Senator Patty Murray, who is a lead sponsor of this bill, and Representative Bobby Scott — both of them are Democrats — have noted that there are guardrails, is the term they use, in this bill that would call for states to look at their very lowest-performing schools, schools where less than a third of kids graduate, and schools where certain groups of students, like English-language learners, students in special education, racial minorities, are just not performing as well as their peers.

So, they say that those guardrails are in place and we’re not going to see any sort of a slide back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But there still is more leeway for states on what to do about these lowest-performing schools?

ALYSON KLEIN: Yes, absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, final last question, Alyson Klein. Common Core, does this affect that?

ALYSON KLEIN: So, this would turn control over standards completely over to states.

The Obama administration, through its No Child Left Behind waiver program, has required states to either adopt Common Core or a set of standards that their institutions of higher education sign off on. It’s kind of technical. But this law essentially says, you know, you need to have challenging academic standards that will get students ready for higher education.

But it takes the federal government out of the picture. That means states could continue to do Common Core if they want to, but there is nothing saying that they have to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alyson Klein with Education Week, thank you.

ALYSON KLEIN: Thank you.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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