This is the year Congress looks likely to pass an overdue update of the federal K-12 education law, and everyone – from parents and students upset about testing, to teachers’ unions and advocacy groups, to the U.S. Department of Education – is weighing in on what changes are needed.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Monday urged lawmakers to resist a popular demand to ditch the annual tests the law required annually in grades 3 to 8 and once in high school. He repeated his criticism that the last version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, put too much emphasis on the tests.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Education panel, said updating the federal education law would be the first item on his committee’s agenda. His House counterpart, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., has said they’d work in sync.
The original education law, passed in 1965, directed federal dollars to schools that served low-income students. Federal funding now supports students with disabilities and English learners, as well as children in poverty.
The law, which covers the full scope of the federal government’s involvement in elementary and secondary education, is eight years overdue for an update. It requires that states test students in reading and math and that schools that fail to show that all students are making progress would face consequences, such as replacing school staff.
But even as Duncan said the current version places too much emphasis on testing, he said the required annual statewide assessments were needed to show students’ strengths and weaknesses.
“I believe we can work together – Democrats and Republicans – to move beyond the tired, prescriptive No Child Left Behind law,” Duncan said in a speech at Seaton Elementary School in Washington. “I believe we can replace it with a law that recognizes that schools need more support – more money – than they receive today.”
He spoke on the 50th anniversary of the day President Lyndon Johnson introduced the first education law in a bid to make educational opportunity equal. Duncan’s audience included civil rights leaders, clergy and members of Congress.
He said that President Barack Obama would ask for an additional $2.7 billion for schools in his budget proposal for 2016, including $1 billion for disadvantaged students.
Duncan also said the new law should include provisions to make preschool available for all families that want it, improve preparation and support for teachers and require that education funds are distributed more equitably.
“Let me be clear: if we walk away from responsibility as a country – if we make our national education responsibilities optional – we would turn back the clock on educational progress,” Duncan said. “For the sake of our national promise and the health of our economy, every single young person should be able to look forward to a future that holds promise.”
Alexander, meanwhile, is expected to roll out his bill soon and plans the first of three hearings on it in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee starting next week.
In a statement Monday, Alexander, who served as Education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, called Duncan’s recommendations “welcome.” He said he expected to send a bill to the Senate floor within a few weeks.
“My goal is to keep the best portions of the original law and restore to states and communities the responsibility for deciding whether teachers and schools are succeeding or failing,” Alexander said.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the Education committee, she was looked forward to working with Alexander and others to revise the bill. Murray previously worked across the aisle on the budget when she was chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee last year.
She said she heard many complaints back home about redundant and low-quality tests.
“But I would be very concerned about, and would push back strongly against, any attempt to eliminate annual statewide testing because these assessments have an important role to play in making sure no student is falling through the cracks,” Murray said in an email on Monday. “They help improve teaching and learning, they provide parents with valuable information about their child’s progress, and they ensure that all students and schools are held to high standards."
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten on Monday said in a statement that Congress should return to the law’s “moral and legal roots as a vehicle to ensure civil rights and equal opportunity for all children, particularly those most at risk. The factors that have undermined that goal – inequity, and the fixation on high-stakes tests that has eclipsed all other learning and accountability measures – must be fixed.”
Weingarten also called for “big ideas,” such as more federal support for tutoring, medical care and other services for low-income students provided after-hours at schools.