Congress set to pass wide-ranging update to federal K-12 education law

Following the U.S. House of Representatives’ overwhelming bipartisan vote in support, the Senate is expected to vote this week on a bill that would eliminate federal mandates regarding teacher evaluations and increase flexibility in how states hold their schools accountable.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes many more national education changes, is a compromise bill forged from two different versions the House and Senate passed in July. In emailed responses last week, the West Virginia Department of Education didn’t provide much indication of what it would recommend the state Board of Education do with the new freedom the bill would give the state.

The legislation, which passed a House-Senate conference committee in a 38-1 vote last month, would replace the much-criticized No Child Left Behind law that former President George W. Bush signed in 2002. No Child Left Behind is currently the most recent update to the landmark 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

West Virginia Republican representatives Evan Jenkins and David McKinley voted Wednesday alongside 357 other House members in favor of the legislation, and fellow GOP Rep. Alex Mooney was among the 64 House members who voted against. While many have called the bill a historic rollback of federal involvement in education, Mooney, in an emailed statement, said it “authorizes a large federal role in education.” He didn’t specify how it does so.

“I believe education decisions are best made by the states, local communities and parents — not the federal government,” he said.

Ashley Berrang, a spokeswoman for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R- W.Va., said Friday Capito still was reviewing the 1,061-page compromise bill, but she voted in favor of the Senate version. So did Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who a spokeswoman said still is reviewing the bill but “believes that the time has come to overhaul No Child Left Behind.”

President Barack Obama also supports the bill.

According to a summary on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s website, the legislation would abandon No Child Left Behind’s mandate that all U.S. schools meet “adequate yearly progress,” replacing it with state-designed accountability systems.

West Virginia — along with over 40 other states, according to the U.S. Education Department — already has a waiver from portions of No Child Left Behind. The document means it doesn’t have to meet adequate yearly progress, but in exchange the waiver puts other requirements on the state.

Without the waiver, the Mountain State would have to label as failing all schools where less than almost all of students are meeting “proficiency” on statewide standardized tests given near the end of each year. Statewide, only 27 percent of students scored at least proficient in math last school year, and only 45 percent did so in English language arts.

The waiver, according to the state education department, would become void Aug. 1 if the new bill passes.

Christine Campbell — president of the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, a national union that supports the bill — said the legislation would move the state in the right direction.

“If this bill passes, at least we have a place to say now we know what we need to do, instead of just constantly renewing a waiver, and the bar gets moved left, right, up and down,” Campbell said.

The bill, according to the House Committee on Education’s summary, would also bar the U.S. education secretary from prescribing specific improvement strategies in struggling schools; allow states and school districts to use federal funds to study their tests to find ones that can be eliminated; allow rural school districts more flexibility in using federal funds; and prevent the federal government from requiring or incentivizing states to adopt the national Common Core math and English language arts standards or any specific standards.

According to a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, although several parts of existing law ban the federal government from requiring states to adopt specific standards, the law doesn’t appear to stop Washington from incentivizing adoption of standards. The Obama administration promised states grant money based partly on them adopting standards that were “common” with other states, and it provided money to develop tests for Common Core and promoted it through the No Child Left Behind waivers.

Currently federal rules require part of math and English language arts teacher evaluations to be based on standardized exams, and the bill’s removal of that requirement would be a win for teachers unions.

In October, the state school board voted to again delay basing 15 percent of annual evaluations for math and English language arts teachers on their students’ improvement in test scores over last school year. Michele Blatt, the state Department of Education’s chief accountability and performance officer, said the delay was in response to Congress’ ongoing attempt to rewrite No Child Left Behind and unexpected difficulties in matching up teachers with the students whose scores they’d be considered accountable for.

Campbell said that, from the information she’s received on the bill, it would give flexibility to the state for its evaluation system, but that puts responsibility on the state to develop a good system. When asked what the state education department plans to do with West Virginia’s evaluation system if the bill passes, department spokeswoman Kristin Anderson responded by email, saying the department would “provide options” to the state Board of Education.

Kaitlin Pennington, an education analyst for the Boston, Massachusetts-based Bellwether Education Partners, Inc., has raised concerns about eliminating the federal requirements for teacher evaluations that came through the No Child Left Behind waivers. She said evaluations should be based on multiple measures of effectiveness, but whether students are meeting proficiency on tests and how fast they’re making progress toward proficiency should be a “significant” part of such evaluations.

“A teacher should not receive a satisfactory rating without evidence of her ability to lead students to academic achievement and growth,” Pennington said. She said she’s concerned the bill could endanger progress states have already made in developing teacher evaluation systems.

Under the new law, states would still be required to annually report data on the performance of subgroups of students, including black students and students from low-income families.

Also remaining in federal law under the bill would be the requirement to have annual, statewide reading and math tests for students in grades three through eight and once in high school. West Virginia currently goes beyond existing requirements by testing all grades from three through 11.

The requirement for states to also give science tests at least three times from grade three through 12 is also preserved. The Mountain State has traditionally tested science in grades three through 11, but last school year the state school board approved temporarily reducing the tested grades to just four, six and 10. It’s considering voting this month to make that reduction permanent, alongside a total erasure of required social studies standardized tests.

The bill would also allow states to replace their high school statewide standardized test with the ACT or SAT. Alongside the state school board’s expected changes to its K-12 math and English language arts standards this month — a move education officials have said could possibly push the standards out of alignment with the state’s current Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced tests — State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano has convened a commission to study the tests.

The state education department said the group will consider “all options” for making recommendations on possible changes to standardized testing.

A joint statement from 37 civil rights and education groups — including the NAACP, the National Disability Rights Network, Teach For America and United Way Worldwide — said the bill is an improvement over No Child Left Behind and the waivers from it. The groups said it’s “not the bill we would have written,” but it has provisions “that we believe will help remedy deep-seated disparities in our nation’s schools.”

The conservative policy advocacy group Heritage Action For America is urging lawmakers to vote no on the bill.

The group, sister organization to the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, said in a statement that the bill “represents a retreat on nearly all of the selling points for the House-passed H.R. 5 bill” and largely resembles the Senate-passed version. Among its criticisms, the group argued the bill wouldn’t eliminate or significantly roll back No Child Left Behind’s annual testing requirements and wouldn’t meaningfully enhance school choice efforts, all while creating a $250 million annual prekindergarten education initiative and other “unneeded programs.”

The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, which led the development of the Common Core standards, have endorsed the bill. The NGA noted it hasn’t given such an endorsement of a bill in nearly two decades. Martirano, who’s now on the Council for Chief State School Officers’ board of directors, said he personally supports the bill’s added flexibility for the state.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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