This week, the House will vote on the conference report for S. 1177, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This long sought-after revision of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) falls well short in rolling back federal intervention in education, and in many ways represents a step backwards for conservative education policy.
Last December, The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke put forward four crucial benchmarks for any overhaul of No Child Left Behind. ESSA falls well short on each and every requirement. Importantly for the context of this conference agreement, ESSA represents a retreat on nearly all of the selling points for the House-passed H.R. 5 bill, and in some respects represents a “bait-and-switch” from that effort. As CQ Roll Call noted, the “the final agreement largely resembles” the Senate-passed bill. Specifically, the conference report:
- extends K-12 authorizations through FY2020, thus balking on the very-important amendment to H.R. 5 offered by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) 70%, and very likely taking K-12 reform out of the hands of the next president;
- does not eliminate or significantly roll-back NCLB’s annual testing mandates, as the amendment by Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) 85% sought to accomplish;
- does not freeze K-12 spending, but rather allows it to continue its rapid growth; and
- retreats in every meaningful way on the House-passed bill’s (H.R. 5) efforts to enhance Title I portability and school choice.
The conference report also represents a step backwards in many respects. The bill contains new programs that represent new federal encroachment on parents’ and local communities’ abilities to determine how their children are educated. ESSA codifies a new $250 million per year pre-K education program, thus asserting federal intervention even earlier in children’s lives. Even proponents of the bill acknowledge this “rais[es] concerns that this will open the door to further federal meddling in pre-K.” It also creates other unneeded programs, like the new Civics Education Program and the new STEM Master Teacher Corps program, again reflecting the conceit that children will only learn important topics if Washington intervenes.
Some proponents of ESSA have argued that the bill is worthy of conservative support, claiming it stops Common Core, reins in Obama’s Department of Education, and consolidates a number of federal education programs. On the first two issues, the damage has largely already been done, and it is up to states to peel themselves away from Common Core and other unauthorized federal incursions on their programs by retaining the annual testing requirement result in “students in large districts taking an average of 112 mandated standardized tests by the time they graduate.” And on program consolidation: the fact that ESSA maintains the current accelerated spending pace shows that the federal footprint has not been reduced in any meaningful way.
Education is an issue that is second-to-none in importance to many American families, and conservatives have the kinds of bold solutions that will empower parents and local school districts to do what is best for their children. Unfortunately, the S. 1177 conference report represents a missed opportunity to provide a contrast with the left on this important issue, and to enact legislation to significantly improve our nation’s K-12 education system.
Heritage Action opposes the ESSA conference report to S. 1177 and will include it as a key vote on our legislative scorecard.
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