April 8, 2015; New York Times

In a rare show of bipartisanship, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) have proposed comprehensive revisions to No Child Left Behind in a 600-page reauthorization draft of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). Their bill, entitled the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, is scheduled for committee action on their agreement and any amendments to begin at 10 a.m. Tuesday, April 14th.

With controversy raging about many elements of the federal government’s effort to improve public education, just getting this bill underway as a bipartisan effort is most unusual. What appears to have been the catalyst for agreement is a shared belief that the power of the federal government to shape American educational policy has grown too great and must be contained. The bill’s objective, “to ensure that all children have a fair, equitable, and significant opportunity to receive a high-quality education that prepares them for postsecondary education or the workforce, without the need for postsecondary remediation, and to close educational achievement gaps,” would seem less controversial than first thought.

This is a big deal,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “It goes back to the original intent of the law, to level the playing field for at-risk kids.” Others see the bill as more status quo, though Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, expressed disappointment that the new bill retained annual testing requirements.

The Alexander-Murray approach does appear to limit the power of the federal government to use federal funding as a lever to pressure state governments and influence public education. Over the past decade, using the authority to grant or deny waivers to the requirements in current funding law that all students demonstrate annual educational progress, the Secretary of Education has been able to pressure states to meet the administration’s educational philosophy. Using this approach the Obama administration has moved to implement the Common Core curriculum, establish national education standards, introduce a regimen of annualized testing, and establish a new methodology of teacher evaluation tied to student test results that has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum. Alexander-Murray specifically prohibits the Secretary of Education from using this power, returning authority to each State.

Sign up for NPQ's Upcoming Free Webinar on Executive Transitions

States will still be expected to set challenging goals for annual student progress, but the proposed legislation specifically restricts the Secretary of Education from challenging state goals and from withholding funding based on the approach chosen. Annual testing for grades 3-8 will remain a requirement, avoiding a threatened presidential veto, but each state will be given the ability to determine how it will accomplish this objective; the bill specifically recognizes that standardized testing is not the only mechanism available by authorizing the use “of portfolios, projects, or extended performance tasks.” Current federal policy requires annual teacher evaluations tied to student test results; the proposed revision leaves the decision on how and when to evaluate teachers to each state.

The bill does keep in place encouragement for states to create systems “establish, expand, or improve alternative routes for State certification of teachers and administrators.” This will be seen positively by supporters of Teach for America and similar programs and opposed by those like Diane Ravitch who see these alternate routes as doing great damage to the profession of education at to the children who are in the classroom.

Yet to be addressed is the total amount to be allocated in the federal budget for public education and the specific allocation of these funds among the several funding streams covered by this legislation.

If passed, the Alexander-Murray bill will not end the national debates about how to improve America’s public education system. Rather, it will remove the common enemy of critics of all shades: the U.S. Department of Education. We can expect that the debate will shift from the halls of Congress in Washington to fifty state capitals. And it will raise a new question: Are the educations provided in each state equal in quality? And if they are not, is our national commitment to “all children hav[ing] a fair, equitable, and significant opportunity to receive a high-quality education” being met?

Beginning with Tuesday’s Senate hearings, the debate about the direction of American education will enter its next phase.—Marty Levine