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It Actually Happened… ESSA Becomes a Reality

It’s been a long time since we first started eyeballing the then-distant possibility of a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which most of us have grown to know in its current form as No Child Left Behind. We’ve looked at the weird alliances the effort spawned, done a little detective work, and tracked the progress of the reauthorization as it slowly developed into its near-final form.

After the bill sailed through the House and later the Senate, it became clear that this thing was actually going to happen despite years of waiting (the law was due to be reauthorized in 2007). And by golly, it really did.

President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law this morning. Here’s what he had to say according to an Education Week article on the signing:

Obama said the Every Student Succeeds Act “builds on the reforms that have helped us make so much progress already.”

“This bill upholds the core value that animated the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson, the value that says education, the key to economic opportunity, is a civil right,” Obama said.

He said that while the authors of the No Child Left Behind Act, the previous iteration of ESEA, were well-intentioned, “In practice it often fell short” and led to too much time spent on testing, among other problems. And while his administration offered NCLB waivers, he said, “The truth is, that could only do so much.”

“For years, I have called on Congress to come together and get a bipartisan effort to fix No Child Left Behind,” Obama said. “This is really a good example of how bipartisanship can work.”

If I were feeling ornery, I would point out to the president that for as bad as many aspects of No Child Left Behind were, his and Secretary Duncan’s use of those troublesome provisions to compel states to accept new requirements through waivers from the law was probably worse. I’ll always prefer bad law actually passed by Congress to de facto law put in place unilaterally by a federal agency. And I will continue to argue that framing the waivers as anything other than an experiment on how to expand federal reach in education is disingenuous—even if I didn’t hate everything they required.

But now is not the time for that discussion. Instead, we should be looking forward to and thinking about what this means for education in the United States.

Already, folks from both sides of the reform aisle have raised concerns. Valerie Strauss, a Washington Post writer whose opposition to testing, accountability systems, and other aspects of reform are well known, ran a story highlighting concerns about new teacher-preparation pathways outlined in the new law. Eddie favorite Andy Smarick has worried about newly created direct bridges between school districts and the federal government. And Andrew Coulson of the libertarian Cato Institute offered a decidedly un-ringing endorsement, saying:

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the intended successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, is better than the law it would replace. That is what many analysts are saying as they hail the legislation as a good step in the right direction. But let’s be honest: you couldn’t set a bar much lower than NCLB.

So what does yours truly think? First and foremost, like my policy friend Ross Izard, I think it’s going to take some time to sort through the massive law. There are a lot of good nuggets that have already been uncovered, and I think it will ultimately be hard to argue that the law is anything other than a shift—though maybe not a tectonic shift—in the right direction. But, like an Easter egg hunt that includes a few landmines for added excitement, there will also be surprises buried in the ESSA that will need to be dealt with regardless of whether those surprises were intended or unintended. There’s no doubt in my mind that there are some chunks of coal buried in this particular Christmas stocking. If you want to start hunting for those yourself, you can find the full law here.

But all that aside, I think the most important thing is that we now have an opportunity to show that we don’t need federal mandates to build a great education system in Colorado. And I plan to get immediately to work doing precisely that. Stay tuned for more updates as we sort through what ESSA—and the new era it has ushered in—will mean for Colorado.