By A.P. Dillon
In less than 21 days, including the Thanksgiving holiday, Congress pushed through a bill that is over 1,000 pages long and has at least 391 pages worth of changes in it from the original version.
It’s likely very few of these representatives and senators read the bill in full or even read in their entirety the changes made and approved in the conference committee report. Much like the case of Obamacare, the House and Senate appear to have passed the bill – the ESEA for short – in order to see what was in it.
So how did this happen and what is really in it?
In July, the effort to overhaul No Child Left Behind started to move. That month, both the House and Senate passed versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The House version is known as the “Student Success Act” (SSA). The Senate’s version is titled the “Every Child Achieves Act” (ECAA) of 2015.
Recently, the House passed the latest version of ESEA after a controversial conference committee process that tinkered with the language of the bill. This new version is called the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA).
What was so controversial in this conference committee’s process? How fast it was carried out, and how difficult it was to analyze the bill. The committee convened on Nov. 18 and adjourned by November 19. During that brief time, the committee did not make a digital copy available to the public, the press or to even the conference committee members themselves. Instead, hard copies of the over-1,100 page long bill were handed out.
The revised conference committee appeared to have rubber-stamped the new framework and sent its report to the House to be voted on after the Thanksgiving holiday. In fact, only a few days were allotted for representatives to review the bill or the changes to it.
Despite calls for a delay and a letter from over 200 activists, Speaker Ryan let the vote proceed on December 2 and the bill passed. Many parents and activists were sorely disappointed that new leadership had resulted in old results.
It is worth noting that of the 13 North Carolina representatives, only four voted against ESEA: Republicans Walter Jones, Mark Walker, Mark Meadows and George Holding.
As of December 9, the Senate voted on ESEA and passed it by a vote of 85 to 12, with three senators not voting. Both Senator Thom Tillis and Senator Richard Burr, both Republicans, voted yes. The three senators not voting were coincidentally all 2016 Presidential candidates – Democrat Bernie Sanders, and Republicans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
The bill is badly flawed. It is apparently packed with more unfunded mandates that extend and expand Pre-K, and it keeps testing of 3rd and 8th graders in place and the 95 percent testing threshold remains. In addition, ESEA fails to address Title 1 portability – in other words, the money will not follow the child. ESEA also does not address issues raised about the weakened Family Educational Rights Protection Act (FERPA).
This version apparently only authorizes ESEA for four more years, instead of the usual five, and Congress will be revisiting this policy under the next president. A full list of various issues that activists were able to find out about the bill in the short time before it was voted on is available at StopCommonCoreNC.
ESEA allegedly allows for the use of local tests at the high school level but requires state permission to do so. What that means is that a local district could opt to use the SAT or ACT as its high school test, in place of whatever the traditional state exam might be. In North Carolina, it will be interesting to see how that plays out given the current required testing mandate.
One amendment to the original House Bill that survived the conference committee changes and that deserves a closer look is the amendment submitted by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY). The text is as follows:
(a) In General. –Nothing in this Act shall be construed
to prohibit a State from withdrawing from the Common Core
State Standards or any other specific standards.
(b) Prohibition. –No officer or employee of the Federal
Government shall, directly or indirectly, through grants,
contracts or other cooperative agreements, through waiver
granted under section 6401 or through any other authority,
take any action against a State that exercises its rights
under subsection (a).”
While this language is a win for education activists and opponents of Common Core, it still means there is a fight to be had at the state level.
The Zeldin language is encouraging, but it is countered by other sections of ESEA requiring states to submit “standards plans to the Secretary of Education for approval” as the site Truth In American Education notes:
“Moreover, ESEA heavily influences standards within the bill itself. In the first place, it requires state plans – which include standards, and which must be approved by the Secretary – to coordinate with 11 different federal statutes, including the statutes governing workforce development and Head Start [Section 1005, amending Section 1111(a)(1)(B), pp. 56-57]. This requirement will be statutory – a state must comply with it regardless of what the Secretary does or doesn’t do.”
What the language in the Zeldin amendment does do is pull the rug out from under various education officials, legislators and special-interest groups who have used the argument that a state could not withdraw from the standards due to being obligated by language in the Race To The Top grant program.
This same argument has been used in North Carolina by various officials, including State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson. Atkinson, along with former Gov. Bev Perdue, obligated North Carolina to use Common Core in our state’s Race To The Top application – six months before the standards were made public or even adopted by North Carolina’s State Board of Education.
With the North Carolina Academic Standards Review Commission’s final reports and recommendations due at the end of this month, it will be interesting to see how these developments will change the current narratives.
A.P. Dillon is a contributing writer.