Grassley speaks in favor of ECAA

ClassroomFrom Press Release


U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) took the floor of the Senate to speak in support of the Every Child Achieves Act, also known among critics as “No Child Left Behind 2.0.” He said the legislation was a “step in the direction” of rolling back burdensome federal mandates created by NCLB, although there were provisions of the bill he said he didn’t necessarily like.

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In 1965, Congress passed the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  The centerpiece of that law, then as now, is Title I funding provided as a block grant to local school districts to serve children in poverty.  The assumption in 1965 was that simply providing an infusion of federal cash to schools with more disadvantaged children would correct educational inequities compared to more affluent schools.  As it turned out, simply providing more money didn’t result in improved educational outcomes for disadvantaged children.  So, every time this law came back up for reauthorization, Congress added more stipulations on the use of the funds and additional programs that well-meaning members of Congress hoped would help students.  Meanwhile, Congress kept raising the level of funding.  Over time, there began to be a bipartisan realization that all this funding and all these programs were not resulting in improved student achievement, so something needed to change.  In this context, President Bush proposed what became the No Child Left Behind Act.  His original proposal promised to fundamentally change the old Washington-knows-best approach to improving teaching and learning.  The theory was that we would cut the federal strings that tied the hands of local administrators and teachers, allowing them to focus on teaching kids. In return, the law would require greater accountability in terms of student achievement outcomes.

However, the final compromise that passed Congress included a very detailed one-size-fits-all assessment and accountability system, but not the degree of local freedom that many had hoped for.  In retrospect, I think most people believe the focus on achievement for all students was positive.  But like with many federal laws, how it worked in practice didn’t live up to the good intentions.

The reality is that the new federally mandated accountability system included required interventions that were cooked up in Washington and designed for big city failing school districts.  These were not a good fit for communities in Iowa and many other states.  Moreover, they set a new precedent for federal intervention into how local schools are run.

Secretary Duncan took this a step further through the Race to the Top program and his abuse of the federal waiver authority by adding conditions found nowhere in law.  He used these tools to coerce states into adopting his preferred policies.  These included new, even more heavy-handed mandates regarding reorganizing local schools, specific methods for schools to evaluate their teachers, and most infamously, pushing states to adopt the Common Core standards.  I believe these actions go well beyond any authority Congress gave the Secretary of Education and I told him so in a letter when he denied Iowa’s waiver.  This should be a warning to Congress that if you give an inch, federal officials might just take a mile.

The high-stakes system in No Child Left Behind also created negative incentives for schools to focus on getting passing test scores rather than meeting the individual learning needs of each student.  For instance, I have had a concern for a long time in how federal education policy affects gifted and talented students.  The exclusive focus on bringing struggling students up to some minimum level means that we are setting our sights on mediocrity.  Left out of this equation are gifted students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have enormous potential but need to be challenged to reach that potential.

At the end of the day, the goal of making sure all students are receiving a quality education is a good one, but the record of Washington’s intervention in this issue has not been a success.  It’s time for Congress to take a step back and have a little humility.  We don’t know what’s best for every child in every school.  We can’t design a single national education system that can meet the individual needs of children we will never meet.  Our Founding Fathers designed a federal system of government for a reason.  The principle of federalism is that decisions should be made at the level of government as close as practicable to the people those decisions impact.  When it comes to education, no one has a greater stake in educational decisions, or knows better what is right for a specific child, than that child’s parents.  As a result, parents should have maximum control over their child’s education.  When governments make decisions that impact education, it should be at a level of government as close as possible to the parents and children who are affected.

The Every Child Achieves Act is a step in that direction.  It eliminates the very specific mandates on states requiring that they evaluate schools based on test scores and apply federally designed interventions.  States will be free to design their own assessment and accountability systems.  The bill retains the requirement that states test annually in grades 3-8, which I understand was necessary to get a bipartisan agreement.  However, states will have wide discretion in how they design their assessments.  And, the elimination of the federally mandated school interventions that raise the stakes on the test results will reduce teaching to the test.  This bill also consolidates federal funding in a way that provides more latitude to local school districts to better meet their individual needs, although less so than in the House-passed bill.

By contrast, the Obama administration’s blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act called for replacing the current set of federal mandates with a new set of federal mandates.  This would include even more intrusive, mandatory federal interventions for certain schools.  The Obama blueprint also proposed a series of new federal competitive grants with broad purposes, which puts smaller rural schools at a disadvantage and gives the Secretary of Education an inappropriate degree of control over which schools get funding for which purposes.  Moreover, the President’s blueprint proposes tying federal education funds to the adoption of state content standards that are “college and career ready,” which is code for Common Core.  In short, the Obama blueprint would have essentially ratified this administration’s heavy-handed intrusions into how and what students are taught and enabled further federal overreach.

The Every Child Achieves Act represents a rejection of that approach and an admission that the model of federal control of local schools has not worked.  As a result, President Obama has said he cannot support the bill as it stands unless it adds back more power for the Secretary.  That position flies in the face of what I hear from Iowa educators and parents.

In fact, this bill quite intentionally tightens up some of the language in current law to prevent future overreach by the Secretary of Education.  For instance, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has always required states to develop a state plan to show how it will comply with the law in order to get federal funding.  Under current law, the Secretary of Education is charged with approving the plan unless it does not meet the requirements of the law.  That should be sufficient to tell the Secretary that he must approve a plan so long as it complies with the law.  However, given the current Secretary’s track record, the language in this bill is more explicit.  It requires the Secretary to deem a state plan approved within 90 days of its submission unless he can provide a detailed description of the specific requirements in law that the state did not comply with.  It then lists three pages of explicit limitations on the Secretary’s authority describing what he cannot consider in evaluating a state plan.  That is then followed by a rule reemphasizing that the Secretary cannot require anything at all from states beyond what is in the law.  This bill also voids any conditions attached to waivers already granted by the Secretary of Education and prohibits the attaching of any new ones in the future.  I am also glad that this bill includes very comprehensive language I worked on with Senator Roberts to explicitly shut off all the avenues this administration has used to coerce states to adopt the Common Core standards.  This will free states to adopt whatever content standards they choose based on the input from their citizens without federal coercion or fear of federal repercussions.  Too often, Congress passes vague laws that delegate excessive discretion to federal agencies to fill in the blanks.  This bill is an improvement over the standard practice.  It makes congressional intent more clear and fills in many gaps to ensure that the Department implements the law as intended rather than based on the whims of the Secretary.

Some bipartisan compromise is necessary for any bill to pass the Senate, and like any compromise, most people can find some things they don’t like in this bill.  Some senators feel this bill goes too far in reducing the federal role in education and some senators feel it doesn’t go far enough.  I am one of those senators who would prefer to see a maximum degree of state and local control and I voted for amendments to that effect.  However, the Every Child Achieves Act is a step in the direction of reducing federal control on local schools so teachers can teach and parents know who to hold accountable for decisions that affect their children.  Given the current mess with an unworkable law on the books, many states ceding control over major policies to Washington in return for a waiver, and an unprecedented degree of federal intervention into what happens in neighborhood schools, it’s overdue for Congress to act.  Local schools can do more when Washington does less.  Let’s give them that chance.