An education law that moves back in time

The Observer editorial board

There’s been quite a bit of cheering about the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to the 13-year-old No Child Left Behind law.

Conservatives and state legislators are celebrating how the new law, which President Obama signed Thursday, will shift the balance of power in education dramatically from Washington back to the states.

Standardized test opponents are thrilled at how the new law, which passed Congress with bipartisan ease, will de-emphasize the importance and frequency of tests. That should allow teachers more freedom and control in their classrooms.

Mostly, though, the education community is cheering the demise of what the Every Student Succeeds Act replaced.

No Child Left Behind, signed into law in 2002, was designed to shine the nation’s light on struggling students by promising accountability from schools and higher performance standards for all.

But NCLB was a failure by most every measure. When test scores began to fall short of the proficiency the law mandated, some states dumbed down the standards so more students could pass. That was followed by the Obama administration granting waivers from some of the law’s requirements – a federal dumbing down of sorts – if states agreed to other mandates.

In the end, states resented Washington’s intrusiveness, which included the carrot-dangling of “Race to the Top” grants for state initiatives that encouraged standardized testing. Teachers and parents resented the growing importance of those tests. And none of it ended up increasing things like SAT scores.

(One other casualty was the Common Core, which has gotten snagged in the anti-testing fervor and mischaracterized as Obamacare for education, when the only actual link to Washington was that states could receive extra grant money for participating. States are still welcome to be a part of Common Core, but more are instead leaving or exploring a way out.)

So what will the Every Student Succeeds Act bring? States still have to do some standardized testing – including Math and English for third through eighth grade students – and states will lose some federal money if they don’t make some effort to improve the bottom 5 percent of schools. But states will now have the ultimate say over performance standards, testing and, in turn, curriculum.

Essentially, this is a winding back of the clock to the era of state automony. That’s concerning, because it was the failure of states to close achievement gaps for disadvantaged students that prompted No Child Left Behind. Now, if a school is merely mediocre or poor – but not in the bottom 5 percent – will states take more notice than they once did?

Families should be especially concerned in North Carolina, which already ranks near the bottom of the nation in how it funds schools and pays teachers. That’s thanks to Republicans in Raleigh who’ve shown more inclination toward offering private school vouchers than they have toward improving public schools.

This week, the Every Student Succeeds Act gave significantly more power to those lawmakers. We’re not sure that’s much of a reason to cheer.