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Bipartisan Bill to Bring State-led Accountability to Education

As members of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Governors’ Council, we join our colleagues, former governors Mike Beebe (D-AR), Linda Lingle (R-HI) and Sonny Perdue (R-GA), in applauding Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) for their pragmatic leadership on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization bill.

In 2001, then-President George W. Bush, a Republican, partnered with liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy to craft an education reform package known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The bill ushered in a new era in education policy not just because of the political odd-fellows who championed it but also because it took the federal government further into education policy than ever before. The concept behind the law seemed simple enough—hold schools accountable for their students’ education, allowing them to be labelled as failing if a sufficient number of students did not achieve “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) on annual tests.

However, as is so often true, the devil was in the details. Under the law, by 2014, all children were supposed to pass their state’s reading and math exams. None of the states achieved that important, and ultimately unrealistic, milestone.

However, NCLB has one important legacy—it showed us as a nation just how far we have to go to having a world-class education system. The data that has resulted from the assessments is critical as we seek new ways to reach students who to date have struggled to keep up with their peers. Unfortunately, though, NCLB stifled innovation at every level, from the state to the classroom, in a mad rush to achieve the unachievable.

Recognizing the law’s limitations, President Barack Obama’s Department of Education began issuing waivers to states who wanted to innovate but were limited by the law. To date, 43 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have received waivers to at least one of ten NCLB provisions. As governors, we know all too well the limitations of governing by waiver. We have lived with and struggled under Medicaid waivers for decades. We as a nation simply cannot allow our most important asset—our children—to be controlled by administrative whimsy. They deserve a thoughtful, consistent approach to their education. We are therefore very pleased to see both the House and Senate advance legislation to reauthorize ESEA and reform NCLB.

Both bills would return accountability to the states, replacing AYP with systems designed by each state to meet their own individual needs. Both bills maintain testing requirements because, as noted above, the data is critical to ensuring that our schools are delivering the quality education our children need of them.

Importantly, both bills as introduced maintained the primacy of each states’ chief state school officer over state education planning. However, most voters hold the governor accountable for their quality of their schools, even though in many cases the governor currently has little to no control in that regard. Importantly, the governor is the only state official with the ability to bring together all facets of the school-to-work pipeline from pre-K through workforce training. It is critical that the governor has a say in his state’s education plan to ensure that it is consistent and in coordination with the pre-k, university and workforce training programs. NCLB put governors on the sidelines; we hope the new era will put governors back in the education game.

We also thank Sens. Dean Heller (R-NV) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) for their amendment to the Senate’s Every Child Achieves Act that would ensure both the governor and the chief have sign-off on the education plan. Their amendment, if enacted, would increase the level of collaboration necessary to align state and federal education programs.

At a time when Washington often seems paralyzed by hostile partisanship, the Senate’s ability, led by Sens. Alexander, Murray, Heller and Manchin, to set aside ideological differences and pursue a meaningful, much-needed reform is invigorating. By passing the bill as-is to a bipartisan conference committee, Senators uphold a plan to promote coordinated state efforts and provide state-led accountability to make certain ESEA is supporting students who need help the most.

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