On June 14, 2001, the U.S. Senate passed The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). President George W. Bush signed the act into law in January 2002. The legislation stands as Congress’ last major bipartisan pact on education policy. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most controversial laws of the 21st century.
In the years since its enactment, NCLB has served as a lightning rod for critics skeptical of its test requirements and teacher accountability standards. Issues over school choice and inequality, fueled by documentaries such as Waiting for “Superman,” have only raised the stakes around a now simmering reform debate.
Hoping a fresh dialogue could renew the bipartisan legacy of education reform, the BPC hosted a Bridge-Builder Breakfast on Monday, “Beyond Politics: Why Education Shouldn’t Be A Partisan Issue.” The panel of national, state, and local education leaders included former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis, Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Jerry Weast, and the National Education Association’s (NEA) Director of Teacher Quality Segun Eubanks. Bellwether Education’s Andrew Rotherham, a Time.com columnist, moderated the discussion.
With the reauthorization of NCLB on the horizon, panelists touched on the current education landscape, highlighted successful reforms, and measured the effect of budget cuts on the classroom.
For full event details, including pictures and video, click here.
The politics of education
Ten years after the enactment of NCLB, Spellings still strongly supports one of the Bush administration’s signature domestic initiatives. “It changed the conversation on education,” Spellings said at Monday’s breakfast. “It’s been powerful—even if you don’t like it.” She pointed to the “planetary alignment” that occurred between President Bush, Senator Ted Kennedy, and Representatives John Boehner and George Miller to get NCLB across the finish line. Spellings worries that “bridge-building” and consensus are now more difficult to achieve. Eubanks voiced his own pessimism on Monday’s panel, saying that today’s policymakers, encouraged by the public, look for “quick fix, silver bullet” solutions.
For Spellings, the problem starts with Congress. “We are not serious about getting every person out of high school in this country,” she argued. “If half the minority kids in this country are getting out of high school, we are just completely complacent. If half the airplanes leaving Reagan fell out of the sky today…we’d be outraged.”
She added that legislators are writing laws for 50 million people without the benefit of a basic understanding of education or its various sub-systems. Moreover, Spellings suggested that the high-profile fight between conservative Republicans opposed to federal bureaucracy and Democrats’ support for the rights of teachers’ unions was a distraction to real reform.
Can educators in the field get past the politics? Tomalis, noting that Pennsylvania spends 40 percent of taxpayer dollars on K-12 education services annually, doubts that politics could ever be removed from the classroom. That does not mean that the dialogue has to be partisan, he insisted: “…when we get down into what happens on a day-to-day basis…it’s kind of hard not to fight over some of the key issues.”
States take the lead
Due to a number of consuming federal policy debates ranging from health care to the federal budget to foreign policy, Washington has not been focused on education reform recently. Several state governors have come forward to fill that void. In recent months, legislatures in Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin, among others, have considered major education bills that would revamp how their schools test students, pay teachers, and determine tenure.
Likewise, in Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Corbett has campaigned for an expanded voucher program and new rules for teacher quality. “We’re pushing against a system” that has been set in place for decades, Tomalis said at Monday’s breakfast. He wants to incentivize teachers, principals, and superintendents to “shake up” the status quo.
Responding to Tomalis’ initiatives in Pennsylvania, Eubanks challenged the rise of voucher programs. “Things like private school vouchers take valuable resources away from public school communities,” he said. “[They] create competitive systems for teaching and for schools when we believe that there should be an equal playing field for all kids in public school systems.” Such differences are “sincere and legitimate,” Eubanks continued, but “teachers ought to be intimately involved in the discussion.”
Technology is paramount
Dr. Weast urges education leaders to get behind the technology wave. Advances in technology go hand-in-hand with improvements in education, he said. “You cannot do, in the same amount time, higher quality without technology. Get rid of your No. 2 pencil—put it in the museum.” However, Dr. Weast is looking for technology to spread to teaching and learning. Innovation via computers and the internet is still geared toward management and parental communication.