Congress Takes Action: Writes and Passes a New Education Law

Who would of thunk it? The Senate and House agreed to overhaul No Child Left Behind (NCLB) by approving the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA). President Obama signed it into law on Thursday, Dec. 10. Since the individual House and Senate education bills differed, a Conference Committee was formed. Most differences were negotiated before the Conference met. It passed the compromise bill 38-1 with only Senator Rand Paul (Kentucky) objecting. ESSA was then sent to the floor of each body for a vote. ESSA (S. 1177)passed the House by a vote of 359 to 64 and the Senate 85-12. The bill is over 1000 pages, and makes several significant changes. The final bill report and its language can be found at either edworkforce.house.gov or www.help.senate.gov.

Basic Principles of the Reauthorization
Democrats and Republicans had different basic principles for this rewrite. The Republican long standing fundamental principles for the new legislation were:

  • Reducing the Federal Bureaucracy
  • Restoring Local Control of K-12 Education
  • Empowering Parents with Transparency and Choice

The Administration's principles reflected its priorities for education reform by helping ensure educational opportunity for all students:

  • College and Career-Ready Standards for America's Learners
  • Rigorous Accountability for All Students
  • Reform and Resources for America's Struggling Schools and Students
  • New Incentives to Improve Opportunities and Outcomes for Students
  • Promoting Equity in State and Local Funding

The Legislation
The bicameral agreement:

  • Places new and unprecedented restrictions on the authority of the secretary of education, ending his or her ability to impose new requirements on states through executive fiat and ending the era of conditional waivers.
  • Prohibits any agent of the federal government — including the secretary of education — from incentivizing, forcing, or coercing states into adopting Common Core, or interfering with a state's right to develop or change its own set of standards and assessments.
  • Outlines specific procedures the secretary of education must follow when issuing federal regulations and requires greater transparency and accountability over the development of new rules affecting K-12 schools.

The legislation also:

  • maintains the existing Title I funding formula;
  • retains annual testing in grades 3-8 and requires disaggregated reporting of results;
  • abandons AYP and the goal of universal proficiency;
  • requires states to focus on schools in the bottom 5% and high schools graduating fewer than a third of their students;
  • does not provide for "portability" of funds or for vouchers;
  • launches a new competitive grants program for preschool programs;
  • puts an end to the Obama administration's waiver program;
  • bars the U.S. secretary of education from influencing state decisions about standards, teacher evaluations and other education policies;
  • includes several provisions advancing and expanding opportunities for charter schools.

A useful fact sheet on the complex legislation is available from Congressional Quarterly.

One education pundit and policy wonk, Rick Hess – education policy director at the American Enterprise Institute – explained in The Hill: "The new bill contains unprecedented language restricting the secretary of education's discretion and eliminating his or her ability to use the law to shape state policy. It ends the invasive and problematic Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs. It contains strong language prohibiting federal officials from seeking to influence state academic standards (think of this as the "no more federal support for the Common Core" provision)."

Also, in recognition of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)'s legacy as a civil rights law, the bipartisan bill upholds critical protections for America's disadvantaged students. It ensures that states and school districts will hold schools to account for the progress of all students and prescribes meaningful reforms to remedy underperformance in those schools failing to serve all students. The bill excludes harmful "portability" provisions that would siphon funds away from the students and schools most in need, and maintains dedicated resources and supports for America's vulnerable children - including students with disabilities, English Learners, Native American students, homeless children, neglected and delinquent children, and migrant and seasonal farm worker children. It also ensures that states and districts continue the work they've begun this year to ensure that all students — including students from low-income families and students of color — have equitable access to excellent educators.  

Two analyses of ESSA worth reading are:

  • Education Reform Now’s Marianne Lombardo breaks down the changes between ESEA and ESSA with a graphic explanation.
  • Whiteboard Advisor's David DeSchryver provides an analysis on what the new ESSA bill means for federal funding, the future of assessment, education data privacy and common standards. Visit:

Another source to learn more about ESSA, visit: edworkforce.house.gov/k12education

ESSA will not take effect until 2017. Regulations have to be written, but bill language is very specific and directed as to the intent of Congress. There will be more analyses of the legislation in the months to come.

About the Author

Fritz Edelstein is a principal in Public Private Action. His work focuses on strategic government and constituent relations, business development strategy, advocacy research and policy analysis, strategic planning and resource development, and advocacy, outreach and public engagement. This work includes producing Fritzwire, the education Internet newsletter providing timely information on education and related issues. To subscribe, write fritz@publicprivateaction.com.

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