By Gov. Bob Wise
With the president’s State of the Union speech on January 27, the race is on—not the Race to the Top, but the race to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). President Obama’s call for Congress to act this year was critical confirmation of his administration’s commitment to this vital legislation.
This announcement removes any ambiguity about the Obama administration’s commitment to pursuing ESEA in 2010. Successful legislative action is vital for improving student outcomes as well as building human capital for an increasingly skill-starved workplace.
Delaying action on ESEA is in no one’s interest, especially the children and educators who are laboring under an almost ten-year-old law. Most of the gains from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) have already been realized; it is time to build on what has proven positive and do what happens with every major piece of legislation—review strengths and weaknesses and draft legislation for current needs and conditions. NCLB was groundbreaking in 2001; almost a decade later, it is a compact disc in an iPod world.
Some say that there is not enough legislative time this year to complete an ESEA reauthorization. I argue that the time will never be better.
First, the need is clear. The stimulus package with its innovations and reform-driving initiatives expires October 1, 2010. Without new legislative authorization, future funding reverts to old formulas. There will be no further targeting of funds to the lowest-performing high schools. The reform initiatives undertaken by many states applying for the Race to the Top awards will not be assisted by the federal government beyond this year’s winners.
Second, the doomsday machine of NCLB continues grinding on. More schools will fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) without resources or flexibility to meet their challenges. For high schools, NCLB has identified problems, but it has proven largely ineffective on providing remedies since options for addressing failure are limited and Title I funding is ineffective.
Third, the economic shortfalls that many states will face for several more years will force changes that were unimaginable just a few years ago. But today’s NCLB is a blunt instrument when a laser scalpel is needed. With the tension of fewer dollars and more demands for higher expectations, the federal role should be what Education Secretary Duncan terms tight at the top and loose at the bottom. This means that the federal government sets some basic expectations but leaves necessary flexibility to states and school districts to develop remedies that work for them.
Finally, there is the political imperative. Health care deliberations have not been the Congress’s finest moment. Bare-knuckle partisanship dominates other significant issues. Education is the one major legislative endeavor where Republicans and Democrats have largely avoided creating partisan divides. The familiar issues around ESEA provide both parties the opportunity to demonstrate that they can work together when it comes to improving opportunities for children. Every incumbent heading home for a tough reelection campaign wants to be able to show a positive accomplishment that everyone feels good about.
The Alliance is devoting all its efforts to enacting—this year—an ESEA that meets the needs of children in all grades. We will constantly press that high school graduation rates rise sharply and diplomas truly mean a graduate is college and career ready. And we will be unceasing to push enactment this year.