Friday, July 17, 2015

In ESEA Debate, Education is Caught in the Middle Between the State and Fed


Watching Congress debate national education policy is a bit like going to a tennis match and finding a truck and tractor pull has erupted.

“Isn’t this supposed to be about how to make our schools better?” I want to scream.

“No!” someone yells from the stands. “This is about States’ Rights vs. the Fed. Go, States!”
Face palm.

The current brouhaha centers around the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the federal law that governs K-12 schools.

The present version, called No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is a thorough disaster. Thankfully Congress is trying to rewrite the legislation.

However, in doing so the emphasis has been less on making things better and more on deciding who gets to make decisions about schools.

Republican President George W. Bush greatly increased federal control with NCLB, something Democratic President Barack Obama has continued through his education policies.

These days, the GOP has done a 180 and is the champion of states rights to make their own education policies.

Given the Obama administration’s continued emphasis on standardized testing, punitive accountability systems and top down education standards, a move away from federalism seems completely justified.
But this is becoming the heart of the debate even at the expense of children, parents and teachers.

Take Opt Out.

NCLB allows parents to opt their children out of standardized testing, but school districts can be punished for it. If more than 5% of the students in a district don’t take the federally mandated tests for whatever reason (including parental opt out), the district’s Title I funding is put in jeopardy.

In many parts of the country, parents are refusing to subject their children to these tests anyway. They are voting with their feet. They are telling our lawmakers they do not want their children to take standardized tests so often – or in many cases – at all.

The good news is that BOTH of the two drafts of the ESEA allow for parental Opt Outs. However, who gets to decide if doing so will penalize your school?

The House version says that opting out will not hurt your district. Period. But the Senate version leaves the matter up to the states. State legislatures get to decide if withholding your child from standardized testing will have punitive consequences for your district.

This is absurd.

It’s not a matter of States’ Rights vs. the Fed. It’s a matter of parental rights.

As a parent, I should have final say over what my child does or does not have to do in school. There may be limits in extreme circumstances (i.e. vaccines) and in terms of content (i.e. science, history), but in general the rights of parents and children should trump all others.

Ironically the parents who shield their children the most from standardized testing are those who champion it for everyone else. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is sending his children to a Chicago private school that does not use standardized tests. Likewise, Obama’s children attend a private school free from the influence of his education policies. Same with corporate education reform cheerleaders Governors Chris Christie and Rahm Emanuel.

So many cooks who refuse to eat their own cooking!

But to return to the ESEA, pundits are lauding the Senate Opt Out restriction as a selling point between the versions of the proposed law. The House version has a better Opt Out provision, so you can choose it.
However, it is also poisoned from the start because (unlike the Senate version) it includes a backdoor voucher provision. Called Title I Portability, the House bill essentially would suck up funding now given to impoverished districts and spit it back into the lap of richer ones. Poor kids need additional funding because they go to poor schools that have less money to spend educating them. If a poor child goes to a rich school, she doesn’t need additional funding – the school already spends more to educate her than a poor district ever could. But the issue is a bit of a nonstarter anyway because Obama already has promised to veto any bill containing it.

So the only option is the Senate version, and they just sunk a big turd in it.

But like any factory farm sausage, you often have to learn to accept a few unsavory morsels in with the meat. Even if the final bill includes this Senate provision, it will be an improvement over NCLB. Punishing schools for parental opt outs is the status quo. If even a few  states decide not to punish their schools because of parents choices, that will be a step in the right direction.

It’s just so frustrating to watch our myopic Congresspeople take such baby steps forward.
Why would anyone try to override parental concerns about testing?

Many legislators worry if all students aren’t tested, there will be no way to determine if school districts are properly educating students.

But that is exactly the point!

Standardized testing does not show how well a school is functioning! It only shows how many poor students go to the school. Rich kids score well; poor kids score badly. And academics? There are so many better means of assessing them than multiple choice exams graded on a curve!

If lawmakers really wanted to ensure all students were getting a quality education, they’d hold BOTH the state and federal governments accountable for equitably funding our schools. No more funding based on local wealth. No more poor kids getting less funding than rich kids. No more kids doing without because mommy and daddy have lousy paying jobs.

Parents, children and educators have been crying out to lawmakers about the injustice of using high stakes tests as means of punishing schools for the poverty of their students. THIS is what needs to change. THIS is the essential reform we’re crying out to be enacted!

But no one’s listening. All they care about is which team is winning – Team State or Team Fed.

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