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Education Reform – New Bill Shifts More Oversight To States

By Leonard E. Colvin

Chief Reporter

New Journal and Guide

When President Barack H. Obama signed the new education reform bill last week, it abandoned many of the mandates of the 14-year-old “No Child Left Behind” law. Notably, it granted states and locales more control of their public schools.

The “Every Student Succeeds Act” is designed to allow states and locales to devise ways to improve troubled public schools without federal sanctions.

The bill had bipartisan support and education unions and teachers seem to support it, as well.

The new law preserves mandated federal standardized testing, but eliminates the penalties and the damning sanctions which caused many majority-minority and poor schools to lose accreditation.

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“This bill makes long-overdue fixes to the last education law, replacing the one-size-fits-all approach to reform with a commitment to provide every student with a well-rounded education,” Obama said at a White House signing ceremony.

“With this bill, we reaffirm that fundamental American ideal that every child – regardless of race, income, background, the ZIP code where they live – deserves the chance to make out of their lives what they will.”

Virginia Democratic Congressman Robert Scott attended the ceremony and is one of the strongest supporters of the legislation.

On the day that the House and Senate version of the bill was passed, Scott said “(W)e have moved closer to advancing the principles of Brown v. Board of Education, which said that the opportunity for a public education is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Scott, who sits on the Education and the Workforce Committee as Ranking Member, also said, “This agreement ensures that when achievement gaps are found, meaningful action will be taken to intervene and support the needs of students. It ensures that funds will continue to be directed to communities and give teachers and schools the resources they need to support all students. I look forward to the vote by the House and Senate that will send President Obama a bill that is indeed worthy of his signature.”

Civil rights groups have expressed concern that restricting federal authority to intervene in state and local districts weakens a potent tool to prohibit racial discrimination and provide equal resources to schools serving poor and minority children.

“The whole purpose behind the original bill was to ensure that there were consistent standards and federal oversight to make sure that states and localities were doing the right thing by poor children, by children who needed that assistance the most, and reducing that and granting so much discretion to states is just worrisome,” said Leslie Proll, the director of policy at the NAACP

Legal Defense Fund. “Some states will do the right thing, and that’s great; others may not, and therein lies the problem.”

The new measure will maintain the mandatory standardized testing in reading and math established by the Bush-era law, but leaves it up to state and local officials to set their own performance goals, rate schools and determine how to fix those that fail to meet their objectives.

Margaret Spellings, who served as Mr. Bush’s education secretary from 2005 to 2009, said she is worried that in removing the consequences for failing to meet a federal educational standard, the law would take the pressure off states and districts to perform, especially for poor and minority students.

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“We are now in the era of local control once again,” Spellings said, “and with that comes a lot of responsibility to work with states and school districts to make sure that we close the achievement gap.”

She pointed out, “It does not include a major expansion of early childhood education the president desired.”

States will still face some federal requirements for the schools that struggle most, including the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and those where more than a third of high school students do not graduate on time.

Those schools will also be required to take steps to close gaps in achievement and in graduation rates between poor and minority students. But the federal government will not dictate how they must do so.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the law marked “a new day in public education” that would bring about “the most sweeping, positive changes to public education we’ve seen in two decades.”

“It ensures that the federal government can no longer require these tests as part of teacher evaluation,” she said. “And it makes public education a joint responsibility.”

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