hoto credit: Ron Cogswell (CC-By-2.0)
Photo credit: Ron Cogswell (CC-By-2.0)

The U.S. Senate passed S.1177, the Every Child Achieves Act, on a 81 to 17 vote on Thursday afternoon after seven days of debate on the bill.  Advocates say the bill fixes the problems with No Child Left Behind.  Critics have complained that the bill doesn’t go far enough to restore local and state control. The bill was written by Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA).

“Last week, Newsweek Magazine called this the ‘law that everyone wants to fix’—and today the Senate’s shown that not only is there broad consensus on the need to fix this law—remarkably, there’s also broad consensus on how to fix it. This is the consensus: continue the law’s important measurements of students’ academic progress but restore to states, school districts, classroom teachers and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about the results of those tests,” Alexander said in a released statement.

“On the Senate floor, we’ve considered 78 amendments, adopted 65 and passed a bill that says that the path to higher standards, better teaching and real accountability is through the states and local communities, not Washington, D.C. Now our job is to work with the House to produce a conference report that we can send to the president’s desk,” Alexander added.

The concerns addressed by American Principles in Action and others were largely not remedied by the amendment process.  On Wednesday an amendment offered by U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) fixed an omission of a key privacy and parental rights protection. Specifically, ECAA had omitted the requirement that the federally dictated statewide standardized tests “do not evaluate or assess personal or family beliefs and attitudes, or publicly disclose personally identifiable information.”

Emmett McGroarty, director of education for American Principles in Action said in a released statement on Thursday prior to the final vote, “This is a good start. However, this addresses only one of the severe privacy and data collection problems with ECAA. Much more needs to be done to protect children.”

The U.S. Senate also voted down amendments by U.S. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) that would have affirmed a parent’s right to opt their students out from assessments, and an amendment from U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) that would have gutted the federal testing mandate.  Amendments proposed by U.S. Senators Tim Scott (R-SC) and Steve Daines (R-MT) that would have restored more local and state control also failed.

Both U.S. Senators from Iowa voted in favor of the bill.

U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) voted in favor of amendments such as one ones offered by Cruz and Lee, but still voted in favor of the bill.

“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,” ” Grassley said Wednesday afternoon in a speech on the floor of the Senate.

“…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,” Grassley added.

U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) called the bill a positive step forward.

“As a mother and grandmother, I believe education is an issue best handed at the local level – by Iowans – and not Washington bureaucrats that employ a top down, one size fits all approach,” Ernst said in a released statement.

“The long overdue reforms to fix No Child Left Behind in the Every Child Achieves Act will restore local control, remove the weight of the federal government on our school systems, and empower parents, local educators and school boards to make the best decisions for their students. I voted for several amendments that would have further strengthened local control and improved the bill, and although they were unfortunately not adopted, these should be ideas we continue to push forward. Ultimately, this legislation affords greater flexibility for our individual school systems to design and implement their education and accountability standards as they see fit,” Ernst added.

Three of the four members of the U.S. Senate running for President voted no on the measure.  U.S. Senators Cruz (R-TX), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) voted no.  U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) did not vote.

Paul called the bill flawed education reform.

“I believe education is the great equalizer, but Washington’s intrusion in the classroom leaves most kids behind. This bill is not the solution, as it retains some of No Child Left Behind’s biggest flaws – a lack of adequate parental choice, a federal testing mandate, and continued support for Common Core,” Paul said in a released statement.

Cruz noted that while the bill made some improvements to the status quo that exists with No Child Left Behind it still falls short empowering parental and local control.  He called it a missed opportunity for “meaningful change.”

“Decisions regarding our children’s future should be placed in the hands of those closest to students, and that is teachers and parents. This is why I introduced an amendment to give states the flexibility to develop their own accountability standards, rather than meeting criteria outlined by federal bureaucrats in the Washington cartel. This type of federal control has led to the failed, top-down policies that produced Common Core. We also had the opportunity today to significantly advance school choice for low-income students, giving them a chance to succeed at a public or private school of their choosing. Unfortunately, my colleagues in the Senate rejected these amendments, perpetuating the same tired approach that continues to fail our children,” Cruz said in a released statement.

“When the federal government is in charge, the most common outcome is accepting the lowest common denominator. When it comes to the future of our country and our children’s future, the lowest common denominator is simply unacceptable. We can do better and our children deserve better,” Cruz added.

Several education policy experts are not pleased with the bill.

“This proposal does little if anything to restore state and local control of education. Moreover, it sets the stage for increased federal spending in the near future. The amendment included from Sen. Burr to change the funding formula for Title I does so once funding for the Title increases to $17 billion – nearly $3 billion over where it currently stands – likely creating momentum to increase spending in the near-term in order to achieve the funding change,” Lindsey Burke, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education, at the Heritage Foundation told Caffeinated Thoughts.

“The proposal still dictates testing schedules to states, maintains a labyrinth of federal programs, and perpetuates the notion that education dollars are best earmarked for school districts instead of students. It was, and remains, a huge missed opportunity for conservatives to restore dollars and decision-making to those closer situated to students,” Burke added.

“It is unfortunate that civil rights groups seem to think that billions of dollars for the education of low-income children will be useful, when in 50 years, the needle hasn’t moved in reading.  And the needle won’t move, so long as re-authorizations of ESEA allow the bulk of Title I money to be spent on the costs associated with hiring academically under qualified reading teachers and aides.  Why civil rights groups think that is a quid pro quo, they need to explain to those of us who think low-income children would benefit from academically qualified teachers,” retired University of Arkansas professor of education reform Sandra Stotsky shared with Caffeinated Thoughts.

“I think two things are clear from the bill’s passage. First, it’s clear that politicians don’t feel safe rolling back the federal role in education. Some of them tell us they believe in this, but most of them don’t actually do it. So voters need to start holding them accountable, with all the usual means: Asking cranky questions in town halls, calling their offices when votes like this come up, and primarying them if they don’t respond,” Joy Pullmann, education research fellow at the Heartland Institute, told Caffeinated Thoughts.

“Second, I also think it’s clear that politicians feel safe ignoring their constituents’ desires on education. Look, both the left and the right want testing reduced and real data privacy protections enacted. These are bipartisan issues. But our bipartisan leaders aren’t listening. They should pay for that. If they don’t, well, it’s clear they’re right: That voters don’t really care about education, so we’re going to let the kleptocracy continue to run everything from Washington,” Pullmann added.

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