New U.S. education law removes sanctions against state schools

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education law that axes the most stringent restrictions and harshest punishments imposed on schools whose students don’t pass certain standardized tests.

President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill Thursday that will shift control for improving student achievement, choosing grade-level curriculum and evaluating teacher performance from the federal government to states and school districts.

Senators passed it 85-12, one week after it cleared the House by a margin of 359-64. All 12 members of the state’s congressional delegation voted for it.

“I’ve been listening a long time to angry parents, students who are upset and teachers in tears because the No Child Left Behind law is not working,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who teamed with Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, to craft much of the rewrite. “This is a great day.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn called the new law, dubbed Every Student Succeeds Act, “a morale boost for the field of education in our state.”

“Some of the punishments are taken away. Some of the unattainable goals that were set and doomed for failure are taken away,” he said. “Now we can look at what we need to do and to set and attain goals for student achievement.”

For Washington, one of the biggest changes is the erasure of a provision that had required every public school student to be reading and doing math at grade level by 2014.

Nearly 90 percent of the state’s 2,300 public schools didn’t meet that bar the past two years. It forced principals to send letters to parents explaining why their child attended a failing school. And, most districts also lost control of how they spent a portion of federal Title I dollars they receive to help low-income students.

“I think it’s good legislation that moves us in the right direction and gives states more autonomy to do what’s best for kids,” said state Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, who serves on the House Education Committee. “We no longer have to play the games about the waiver and teacher evaluations.”

Everett Schools Superintendent Gary Cohn said its important “that we no longer have to label successful schools as ‘failing’ just because they are not perfect schools. We can celebrate that the punitive and detrimental consequences of the old law are mostly eliminated in this new version.”

The new law axes a mandate that schools meet certain requirements regarding student growth and evaluating teachers, including using student test scores in the evaluations.

Washington lawmakers wrestled the past two sessions on whether to require test data be part of evaluations. This should avert a third year of battles.

“We’ve said all along that mandating the use of test scores in evaluations is a misguided policy that doesn’t help teachers or students,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union

Other aspects of the new law include:

  • Maintaining annual statewide assessments in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school;
  • Allowing states to choose academic standards in reading and math. This means the federal government cannot mandate use of Common Core;
  • Increasing funding for early childhood education programs;
  • Increasing funding for the Impact AID program, which makes up the difference in revenue for districts with large numbers of federally-connected students.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., pushed for this provision that could bring additional dollars to several school districts in Washington.

Since families on military bases and on Indian lands do not pay local property taxes, schools with a large percentage of these students wind up collecting less tax revenues. Impact Aid provides direct payments to these school districts such as ones in Marysville and Oak Harbor.

“Today, Congress recognized the importance of supporting school districts like these all over the country. Bigger, more certain Impact Aid payments mean school districts can better focus on what they do best — educating our students,” Larsen said in a statement.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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