15 December 2015

One cheer for Obama’s new education law

By Tyler Koteskey

On Dec. 10, President Obama signed a law over 1,000 pages long overhauling the federal government’s role in K-12 education — again. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) moves toward less federal interference and more local control than past laws, but only incrementally. Education reformers should welcome a move in the right direction, but plenty of work remains to eliminate barriers to innovation and ensure parents have the choices available to help their children reach their full potential.

Start with the one piece of good news: A pilot program to let 50 school districts experiment with weighted student formulas (WSF) made the final bill. WSF allows each child’s allotted funding to follow them wherever they attend. This gives schools the market incentives to attract more students and funding through quality service. It also ensures that schools taking on pupils with extra learning obstacles get more resources to help them via those kids’ additional funding weights.

Now for the rest: ESSA’s biggest impact is eliminating the controversial Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirement of its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The mandate required states to make unrealistic annual gains in test scores towards a quixotic goal of universal proficiency. Unsurprisingly, many states lowered their standards to paint a false picture of progress to avoid federal funding penalties for failure.

ESSA continues the testing requirements of NCLB, which mandates assessments from grades 3-8 and once in high school. While districts can find these requirements onerous, disaggregated data about various groups (e.g., minority and low-income students) offers important transparency for parents that they lacked before this provision went into place last decade. The federal testing requirement is a political reality and meanwhile we still spend upwards of $600 billion in taxpayer dollars on public education and haven’t meaningfully expanded market share into school choice alternatives.

ESSA retains a heavy federal educational role by dictating features of state accountability plans. It forces states to intervene in the bottom five percent of their schools, as well as those with low-performing subgroups or with graduation rates below two-thirds. States cannot opt out. For a law sold as reinstating local control, ESSA tells locals a lot about how they must use that authority.

On top of all the mandates, ESSA funds six new expensive programs, continuing a failed legacy of exploding federal per-pupil expenses that have yielded almost no meaningful achievement impacts in decades. One of the major initiatives is a fund to spur universal pre-K programs, despite compelling empirical evidence that they will not improve educational outcomes.

ESSA’s supporters argue that the law reins in federal power by prohibiting the Education Secretary from requiring states to adopt Common Core or other universal curriculum standards. Though comforting in theory, three pre-existing federal laws banning the same thing already failed in practice.

The Obama administration has been playing an elaborate game of carrot and stick for years. It helped states avoid the sting of AYP requirements by issuing them exemption waivers, while offering extra stimulus funds through its Race to the Top program. Both initiatives favored the states’ applications whose curriculum adopted Common Core. ESSA’s prohibition wouldn’t stop these kinds of indirect “nudges” in the future.

Despite serious flaws, ESSA is a definite improvement over a deplorable status quo. Education reformers should continue working to fix its larger issues, but we can welcome the trend ESSA represents.

Tyler Koteskey is an Education Policy Analyst at the Reason Foundation and a YoungVoices Advocate. Follow him on Twitter at@TKoteskey76