After 13 years, we could finally be heading toward the end of No Child Left Behind.
George W. Bush's transformative, highly controversial education act officially expired in 2007. The law has remained on the books for the past seven years, despite attempts to remake or dismantle it, largely thanks to partisan squabbling.
But this year has seen a rare occurrence: consensus from both Democrats and Republicans that repealing the thirteen-year-old No Child Left Behind is an urgent priority in 2015. Democrats, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, called Monday for the law to be revamped; yesterday the top Senate Republican on the education committee, Lamar Alexander, did the same, releasing a draft version of his own education bill, called the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015.
Passed in 2001, Bush's No Child Left Behind law mandated that all public schools administer a state-wide test every year to students in every grade, and it penalized those schools that performed poorly — schools whose students did not make "adequate yearly progress" on each year's tests. For each year of poor test scores, schools incurred increasingly harsh sanctions; after six years of failure, the school could be closed, dismantled, or taken over.
But the law has grown increasingly unpopular on both sides of the aisle. On the left, teachers' unions decried the impact that increased testing had on classrooms; Republicans were opposed to the way the law put the federal government in education. With Republicans in control of Congress, many observers see the coming months as the first real chance to push out No Child Left Behind.
The question of what will replace it, however, is still up in the air. On the most central issue, mandatory testing, teachers' unions are improbably aligned with some Republicans, who have said they are open to ending mandated annual tests — and against the Obama administration, which says it will fight to keep high-stakes testing. On other issues, like funding and federal oversight, the partisan divide is strong and bitter. On almost every front, the potential for real bipartisanship looks weak.
Bush's signature law has had mixed results at best, with debate over whether slight rises in test scores and a narrowing of the achievement gap is due to the increased funding, rather than tying test results to school funding.
Surprisingly, Democrats have been, up to a point, some of the law's biggest defenders. On Monday, Duncan and the Obama administration called to get rid of No Child Left Behind, replacing the law with something more flexible and less prescriptive. But the controversial tests, he said, should remain mandatory.
Duncan even quoted Bush in his speech, saying, "This country can't afford to replace 'the fierce urgency of now' with the soft bigotry of 'it's somehow optional'."
But there has been increasing unrest over the role of high-stakes testing in education, with parents, administrators, and teachers saying that test preparation for a narrow set of subjects has overtaken American classrooms, and that the tests do a poor job of measuring students outcomes in the first place. Teachers unions have been annual testing's strongest critics.
"If one test per year can cause an entire school to be shuttered or all the teachers fired, something is wrong with the way that test is being used," said teachers union leader Randi Weingarten in response to the Obama administration's No Child Left Behind proposal.
On the issue of testing, some Republicans, despite being longtime foes of teachers' unions, agree. They have long decried the power that No Child Left Behind gives to the federal government and takes away from the states, and annual testing is among the biggest of federal impositions. Sen. Lamar Alexander's latest draft bill floats an option that would allow states to opt out of mandated standardized testing, developing their own ways to evaluate students.
"I think there is considerable discontent across the country with NCLB, and that cuts across the political spectrum," Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat and former teacher, told BuzzFeed News. Getting rid of mandated annual tests, Takano said, "Would be in line with the general Republican philosophy of returning more flexibility to states."
But with the question of testing aside, there seems to be little opportunity for bipartisanship when it comes to No Child Left Behind. Republicans' vision of a new education bill strips the federal government of much of its oversight and authority, an important part of Democrats' vision, and includes a provision to increase school choice that teachers unions have strongly opposed in the past. Obama and key Democrats, like Sen. Patty Murray, the top-ranking Democrat on the education committee, want add $2.7 billion in increased education spending that Republicans will likely oppose.