Why you should care

American teachers and families are struggling with unworkable education requirements. But our leaders can’t seem to agree on how to fix them.

When it comes to public education in America, 2002 now seems light years in the past — a simpler time, where politicians like George W. Bush, John Boehner and Ted Kennedy could stand together on a stage and applaud the same law. President Bush declared at the time, with the naive confidence of a man who’d been in the White House only a year, “As of this hour, America’s schools will be on a new path of reform and a new path of results.”

Hardly. Instead, education has become a progressively more vicious policy battleground that cuts across partisan lines. And nothing has been the subject of more ire than No Child Left Behind, the law that the then president, future Speaker of the House and liberal Lion of the Senate all cheered. In the years since its passage, the law has prompted a right-wing revolt against federal meddling in public schools, even if that means sacrificing other school reforms Republicans hold dear. It’s also polarized the two parties to such a degree that few hold out hope a replacement currently being drafted by Congress will pass. Ironically, that will leave America with education regulations almost nobody likes.

This isn’t the first time Washington has attempted to rein in the Frankenstein it created in 2002. No Child Left Behind expired in 2007, and lawmakers proposed revisions in 2009, 2011 and 2013. Catherine Brown, vice president for education policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, says “a lot of people thought it was for real” this time, given an “increasing urgency in the country.” With veteran senators in both parties working to reform the law, backers were hopeful. But then the House of Representatives, as it is wont to do these days, threw a wrench in those plans.

Marquez Allen, age 12, reads test questions in Feb. 2015 on a laptop computer during in a trial run of a new state assessment test linked to 'No Child Left Behind' at Annapolis Middle School in Annapolis, Md.

Marquez Allen, age 12, reads test questions in Feb. 2015 on a laptop computer during a trial run of a new state assessment test linked to No Child Left Behind at Annapolis Middle School in Annapolis, Md.

Source Patrick Semansky/AP

Boehner and his Republican majority were all set to vote on, and pass, a new law earlier this year when GOP leaders surprised everyone by suddenly yanking it. The reason: A band of conservatives were refusing to vote for it. “It’s a tough sell with a lot of our base,” explains one conservative congressman, who declined to be identified. “In the last year and a half, education has become a huge issue.” Never mind that President Obama had threatened to veto the bill for going too far in conservatives’ direction. To those House Republicans, it didn’t roll back No Child Left Behind sufficiently. The Senate has since introduced a bipartisan consensus bill, which conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation have likewise panned. With the House revolt, the path to a new law “narrowed considerably,” concedes Brown.

“How can you find a place in the center where you can get enough votes and you can get a signature by the president?”

Michael Petrilli, president of the center-right Fordham Institute

States’ rights are at the heart of conservatives’ push to gut No Child Left Behind. The law created a web of requirements for public schools, things that had never been governed by the feds before, like how frequently to conduct standardized testing and how to measure student progress. The federal government was supposed to provide new funding pots to help schools meet these new requirements. It hasn’t. And some of the bars the law set for school achievement were far too ambitious, policymakers soon discovered.

US President Barack Obama greets guests after speaking about providing US states flexibility under No Child Left Behind program

President Obama greets guests after speaking about providing U.S. states flexibility under No Child Left Behind programs in exchange for education reform, at the White House on Feb. 9, 2012.

Source Saul Loeb/Getty

“There’s always been this tension between [Republicans’] commitment to education reform and their commitment to a small role for the federal government,” says Michael Petrilli, president of the center-right Fordham Institute, an education policy group. Bush won Republican support for the bill with new rules to hold schools accountable for performance and to let students in bad schools go elsewhere. That principle, dubbed “school choice,” has been at the heart of GOP school-reform proposals for decades. They’ve joined with some Democrats to support a growing number of charter schools, open school districts and even systems for funneling public funds to private schools, with states like Arizona and Louisiana leading the way. But right now, “there’s a much bigger focus on shrinking the federal government,” Petrilli says. That’s echoed by Rep. Mark Walker, who’s sponsored legislation allowing states to opt out of No Child Left Behind. His goal for the rewrite is to “reduce the federal footprint in classrooms,” he says in a statement to OZY.

Given that hard-line stance by many in the House GOP, experts like Petrilli are wondering: “How can you find a place in the center where you can get enough votes and you can get a signature by the president?” It’s a good question. Even if Republicans give in on their efforts to expand school choice, as they have in the Senate proposal, Democrats still aren’t likely to go for proposals that dismantle accountability programs or funding streams for disadvantaged districts. The Obama White House threatened to veto the House bill before it was pulled; it’s reserved judgment on the Senate proposal. The smart money says they’ll fail to meet in the middle, which would leave the status quo in place, says Lindsey Burke, an education fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

But how is that better for conservatives than a new law that actually starts to roll back some of the biggest problems with No Child Left Behind? The Republican congressman who spoke to OZY says that any new law would be in effect for multiple years, which makes small ball less appealing. He and other conservatives would rather take their chances, it seems, that they’ll have a Republican in the White House in 2017, and then go big. “This is going to play out with presidential politics,” the congressman says. “That’s going to go a long way in shaping the debate.”

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