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Education

Inching toward the next era of federal involvement in schools

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LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe
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President Lyndon Johnson signs the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965.

The federal government has a long history of involvement in the nation's schools, particularly in the past half century, after President Lyndon Johnson first signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law. I wrote of that history earlier this year. At the time, I mentioned many education leaders were optimistic that the latest update to the law would soon pass.

Well, soon has arrived.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act was approved by the U.S House last week. The Senate takes it up starting tomorrow. Politico says the bill has plenty of support on both sides of the aisle, and President Obama is expected to sign it if it reaches his desk. 

So, what's in the new law? Well, a lot. 

EdWeek has been updating its cheat sheet on the bill, as the legislation moves through Congress. There's lots of details here, but I'll pull out some of what EdWeek calls "the top-line stuff:"
 

The ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act] is in many ways a U-turn from the current, much-maligned version of the ESEA law, the No Child Left Behind Act. States would still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and break out the data for whole schools, plus different "subgroups" of students (English-learners, students in special education, racial minorities, those in poverty). But beyond that, states get wide discretion in setting goals, figuring out just what to hold schools and districts accountable for, and deciding how to intervene in low-performing schools. And while tests still have to be a part of state accountability systems, states must incorporate other factors that get at students' opportunity to learn, like school-climate and teacher engagement, or access to and success in advanced coursework.

Not everyone is pleased with the legislation. From the conservative side of the aisle, some worry the bill doesn't go far enough to roll back federal involvement in schools. On the liberal side, some worry the bill doesn't do enough to hold schools accountable for educating all kids. And people on both sides still don't like the testing requirements in the bill (which are scaled back, and more flexible than the current legislation, but still exist). 

These concerns, in some ways, reflect the compromises it took to even get such an important bill this far. Each side in the debate has given a little. And, at least in Washington, leaders see enough they like to move forward. If the bill becomes law, it will rewrite education policy in America. At least until the next rewrite.