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Area experts, officials react to school bill that shifts more power to states

Judy Baxter, via Flickr

There isn’t much difference in the titles of the old and new federal education acts — from No Child Left Behind to Every Student Succeeds. But the bi-partisan bill  approved by the Senate on a vote of 85-12 and sent to President Barack Obama on Wednesday represents more than the end of a system whose name is usually mentioned with disdain.

It also gives individual states the chance — and the responsibility — to craft school accountability systems without requiring approval from Washington.

Margie Vandeven, Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said the new provisions will boost the home-grown mandates in systems, such as the state’s school improvement program, now in its fifth version.

“We are pleased to see the return of more state control over education,” Vandeven said, in an emailed statement. “What we know now leads us to believe that the legislation will allow Missouri to continue implementing a statewide system of support for schools.

“Missouri is well-positioned to lead local education systems — and therefore Missouri students — to success through our homegrown systems. With the successful reauthorization of this long-overdue law, we will focus on what works for children in our state.”

Most regional members of Congress voted in favor of the new law, throwing in strong criticism of the old system for good measure.

“Parents and local educators know what works best for their students and should have the ability to adapt accordingly,” said U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville. “This long-awaited bill to reform No Child Left Behind reduces the federal footprint in our schools and puts our local educators back in charge.”

And many coupled their praise with a swipe at a frequent target in debates over education.

“Common Core and No Child Left Behind have been disasters for education,” said Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., was particularly pleased that provisions she had worked on made its way into the final bill.

"Today," she said in a statement, "we’ve made real strides to enhance and improve our kids’ education by lightening the load of licensing requirements that make it difficult for teachers — especially military spouses — to continue in their field when they move across state lines, and by improving student health education with a focus on consent and safety to prevent domestic and sexual assault.”

But not everyone was satisfied with the final product.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who voted against final passage, said it did not go far enough in moving accountability for education away from Washington and back to the states, where it belongs.

“There’s still too much Washington-bound impact in elementary and secondary education," he said Wednesday, "and Washington is not the best place to do that.”

Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, who was one of 64 House members who voted against the bill last week, felt the same way.

“Local school communities and parents have always been the best decision makers for their children’s education,” he said. “We can do much better to get the federal government out of our school system than a 1,061-page bill which authorizes six brand new federal education programs.”

A long-stalled effort

Passage of the new legislation caps a long-sought effort to overhaul a system passed early in the administration of George W. Bush. Since No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, an entire generation of students has moved from kindergarten through high school.

The law’s original goal, that all students nationwide would be proficient by the 2013-14 school year, was immediately dismissed as an unrealistic possibility. Now, such benchmarks are primarily left to the states.

Critics of the federal mandates — Lily Eskelen Garcia, national president of the National Education Association calls it “no child left untested” — say No Child Left Behind relied too much on the results of standardized tests and imposed unrealistic expectations that no state could ever meet.

Not that the new version does away with testing altogether. Students in grades three through eight will still take tests in math and reading, plus once again in high school.

And schools will still have to break out the test results of the so-called subgroups — students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, minorities, special education students and those whose primary language is not English.

But once that data is available, states will have much more discretion on how to act. They will no longer have federal dollars in what have been known as SIG grants, to help the lowest-performing schools improve. Other funds will help fill that gap.

We can do much better to get the federal government out of our school system than a 1,061-page bill which authorizes six brand new federal education programs. — U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, who voted against the bill

Schools that score in the lowest 5 percent, and high schools with high dropout rates, will still get attention from Washington, though states will have primary responsibility for making sure such situations turn around.

The authority of the federal education secretary is curtailed. Most provisions of the new law take effect in the 2016-17 school year, meaning that the changes will stretch into the next administration.

You can learn more detail here, courtesy of Education Week.

Changes for Missouri

In Missouri, one big change that the new law could bring is differences in the way the state assesses and accredits school and districts.

Members of the state board of education have been discussing possible tweaks to the system. The state could be in the forefront nationally of such efforts. The new law provides the opportunity for up to seven states to become part of a pilot program that uses district tests instead of statewide standardized tests on annual report cards.

A spokeswoman for Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education says DESE would look into the opportunity to apply for the pilot program. After three years, all states would be eligible to get involved.

Meanwhile, a task force made up of school superintendents statewide will see how the new law could affect improvements in how Missouri rates schools. Pattonville Superintendent Mike Fulton, co-chair of the group, said that once the state gets more guidance on how the law will be implemented, it could improve accountability, assessment and accreditation.

“I think it gives us plenty of freedom to move not only to meet the needs of kids around the state but maybe even provide some local options that districts can exercise,” he said.

In any case, Fulton said the changes from No Child Left Behind to Every Student Succeeds represent a fundamental shift that will benefit Missouri students.

“I don’t think anyone was ever really happy with the alternatives that the feds required on the accountability side,” he said.

“This gives the state an opportunity to really start fresh and make sure that all children are in fact learning. That’s critical, to make sure that school districts are accountable for that learning and to do it in a way that’s going to focus more on continuing improvement and less on punitive measures.”

I think it gives us plenty of freedom to move, to not only meet the needs of kids around the state but maybe even provide some local options that districts can exercise. — Pattonville Superintendent Mike Fulton

Others reactions to the bill:

Missouri School Boards Association:

“The passage of the bill is good news for public school students throughout our state. The bill takes important steps toward removing some of the one-size-fits-all provisions related to accountability and school improvement currently in the No Child Left Behind law and reaffirms the importance of local governance in public education. 

“It will give our state and local school boards more flexibility to establish the policies and programs necessary to provide the high-quality public education all children deserve.”

U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville:

“In the years since NCLB, the Department of Education has made a bad situation worse. This bill prohibits the federal government from forcing or incentivizing the adoption of the Common Core curriculum. It also eliminates federally-prescribed school turnaround models, putting states and local school districts in charge of designing their own accountability and intervention procedures.” 

U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville:

“When it comes to our children’s educations, decisions need to be made by those who know best what is needed. This bill returns more decision-making power to parents and local educators, getting the federal bureaucracy out of the way, and invests in teachers, who are the key to improving education for our youth. Further, this bill holds schools accountable for the investment we are making and empowers parents by giving them information on how schools are performing.”

Parkway Superintendent Keith Marty:

“After years of debate and no action, it’s wonderful to see the potential of a new ESEA law that is current and retains a balance between federal and state education responsibility. The new legislation places accountability where it should be — on the local school districts.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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