What's the Purpose of a Federal Education Law Anyway?

Jim Schutze has a provocative column in the Dallas Observer (hat tip: Chris Stewart) called “Teacher Unions and Koch Bros. Join Forces to Sell Out School Reform.”  Schutze touches on a number of issues – teacher training, NCLB/ESSA, testing, poverty, equity – as well as his titular theme:
Today in Massachusetts, the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, has linked arms with the Pioneer Institute, an ultra-right think tank supported by the Koch brothers and the Wal-Mart Walton family, to battle against key accountability provisions in NCLB and the national “Common Core” curriculum, especially the linking of teacher pay to student outcomes measured by achievement tests.
I don’t know anything about fiscal links between NEA and  the Pioneer Institute.  But later in the piece Schutze muses about an aspect of the almost-there Every Student Succeeds Act  (ESSA) that’s been on my mind.

Think back for a moment on the original purpose of our 1965 federal education law called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: a broad bipartisan consensus that America was failing its neediest students due to legacies of racism, state-to-state inequities, and laissez faire oversight.

We are still failing our neediest students. And, while I reluctantly support the proposed ESSA because, hey, it could be worse, I know of no one who would argue that America has met that challenge of providing all students with equal educational opportunities.

Back to Schutze who is writing from Dallas and recalling erstwhile Texan conversations about education reform. He recalls, “you had a lot of really smart, ferociously committed people from a wide variety of political persuasions, all absolutely united, forged into one steel by the realization that poor kids could be brought to full literacy by the end of the third grade.”

And then he writes,
But here was the other side of the coin: If we knew it could be done, if we knew how to do it, if we had the resources to do it and yet failed to do it anyway, then we committed a great national sin.
This is what kills me, particularly as I read this morning that the New Jersey Department of Education has approved a single charter school in its new cycle even though 20,000 kids, mostly poor and minority, are on waiting lists; and think about New York Gov. Cuomo’s flaccid cop-out on linking teacher evaluations to student academic growth; and cringe as Hillary Clinton abandons her once-stalwart support for school choice and spreads misconceptions (and, really, she’s too smart to not know better) about independent public schools; and groan at the gutting of federal oversight and state-to-state comparability in our nascent federal education law.

Because we know how to do it: high standards (thank goodness for the preservation of  the Common Core!), accountability, expansion of school choice. We have the resources to do it and have failed to do it anyway. (I mostly cover N.J. and N.Y., which spend, respectively,  $17,572 and $19,818 per pupil per year.) And the fact that we don’t do it is a national sin.

The U.S. Congress, NEA and AFT, our national leaders, heck, maybe the Pioneer Institute and the Koch Brothers too, have warped a law driven by moral conviction into a law driven by special interests and divisiveness among states. (Tweet from Politics K-12: civil rights and disability advocacy groups respond to ESSA with "meh." More here. ) It’s why the opt-out movement is so repugnant to me: sure, parents, in this case suburban well-heeled ones, need to do what’s best for their kids, but the whole point of national standardized testing, the whole point of a federal education law, is to protect those who aren’t so privileged.

The ethical underpinnings of educational equity has fallen prey to special interests, fear of accountability, and a misguided prioritizing of state rights. Sure, ESSA is better than if NEA/AFT or the Pioneer Institute had put it together and I wouldn't go so far as to call it a "sell-out."  But it's not worthy of our children or our commitment to avoiding a national sin.

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