Every Student Succeeds … really?

by Martin Maldonado

The passage of a landmark education bill, Every Student Succeeds (ESS) has brought recent attention to Congress as a rare display of bipartisanship. It has even been hailed as a “Christmas miracle” by President Obama himself.

The federal retreat from the supposed invasiveness of the Bush era No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program marks a new era of education. Unsurprisingly, it has easily drawn in Republicans whom for decades have zealously pursued state-led education policy and the removal of federal performance mandates generally advocated for by Democrats and the Bush family statesmen.

The Bush era bill was ridden with issues. Signed in 2001, the bill enacted a byzantine system of testing mandates, private sector access to curriculums and menacing “teach to the test” incentives for teachers. NCLB has received criticism from both sides of the political spectrum for years despite widespread acknowledgement of the law’s good intentions.

Enter Every Student Succeeds. Lamar Alexander from South Carolina is quoted in the Times stating that “we’re too big and complex a country” for a national education program. This common argument is far too simplistic. ESS resembles Reagan-like devolution policies of the 1980s, whereby significant government powers were transferred to state and local authorities. This has drawn praise from Republicans and even President Obama spoke of the bill with highly rhetorical language, stating that it “replaces the one-size-fits-all approach to education” and that it “affirms the fundamental ideal that every American child deserves a chance to make of their lives what they will.”

Not so fast. These wonderful things will unlikely come to “every American child.” Some? Maybe. Think children residing in places like Connecticut, California or Maryland. The children of Alabama, Mississippi and South Dakota may not have the same luck.

News outlets and organizations like U.S. News, the Huffington Post, Wallethub and the conservative think tank American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have ranked the states by performance, strength of state standards, and public school funding per pupil. In all of these rankings we find similar patterns, where affluent northern and west coast states perform significantly better than their poorer southern or southwestern counterparts. The National Center on Education Statistics (NCES) records similar patterns where Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana score lowest in 8th grade mathematics. NCES also finds that the ten states with lowest expenditures per pupil include five southeastern states and five southwestern states. Even more troublesome are the disparities within these states, where of the ten most unequal states in performance between white and black students seven are in the south.

According to The New York Times, the amendments made to the rewrite of NCLB allow for federally mandated tests but “eliminate punitive consequences for states and school district which perform poorly.” The same article also reported that the bill “bars the government from imposing academic requirements like the Common Core.” The key words here are “punitive” and “barring.”

While it is true that some penalty measures incorporated in the previous NCLB were excessive — needless to say counter productive — the penalties were never designed in a way that significantly improved outcomes for poorly performing states in the first place. To take the power of penalty away from the federal government gives incompetent governments in Mississippi, South Dakota or Alabama discretion over whether or not to take an action against a school or school district.

Furthermore, “barring” the government from creating standards gives the same incompetent governments a greater ability to decide their own academic requirements and curriculum. For the future of these states, and the country, this is a very worrisome dilemma.

In 2015, scandals were addressed by national media, where state legislators in Oklahoma and Texas battled the College Board over their Advance Placement American History curriculum, calling for adjustments to what they considered “revisionist” and unpatriotic. States that perform relatively well comparatively to the rest, like Florida, have still witnessed major inequities in primary and secondary education, in this case possessing large numbers of C grade schools in districts outside of the Tampa, Broward, and Miami-Dade metropolitan areas.

These disparities between states carry a historical and very nuanced political complexity, yet there is no promise that the new ESS law will correct the structural problems within the American educational system.

We are in dire need of serious reform, especially in states that poorly administer education policy whether it be federally mandated or led by the states themselves. Regional division and inequality in education can be incredibly dangerous, and, unfortunately, the state institutions endowed with the responsibility of educating American citizens are failing too often. Feeding future generations with intellectual power is essential for long term political and social sustainability. We should do so in the most pragmatic and effective fashion — not the most popular one.  D

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