Politics & Government

No Child Left Behind law rewrite helps waiverless Washington state

Washington’s recent loss of its waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act could soon cease to matter, now that Congress has passed a rewrite of the 2002 education law that would ease its strict school accountability and testing requirements.

The U.S. Senate approved the revisions to No Child Left Behind, redubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act, on a 85-12 vote Wednesday morning. The measure passed the U.S. House last week.

Under the new legislation, which President Obama is expected to sign Thursday, schools in Washington and other states would no longer face harsh consequences for failing to have all their students pass statewide standardized tests in math and reading.

Those mandates led to 88 percent of Washington schools being labeled as failing in 2014, and many Washington school districts losing control over a portion of the federal Title I money they receive to help low-income students. School districts also had to send letters to parents informing them of their schools’ failing status.

Under No Child Left Behind, 88 percent of schools in Washington state were labeled as failing in 2014, while school districts lost control over about $40 million in federal funding for 2014-15.

With the new legislation, “the biggest thing probably is that you can adopt believable goals and expectations for students and schools,” said state schools chief Randy Dorn, who leads Washington’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The No Child Left Behind rewrite also eliminates pressure on Washington lawmakers to mandate that teacher evaluations be tied to student scores on statewide tests. The state Legislature’s failure to approve such a policy last year led to Washington becoming the first state to lose its waiver from the most stringent parts of the federal law.

While more than 40 other states have continued to operate under waivers that exempted them from many of No Child Left Behind’s requirements, Washington’s loss of its waiver resulted in school districts throughout the state having to redirect about $40 million in federal funding last year, according to state officials.

The new legislation, if it is signed by the president, would scrap the system of waivers, a patchwork fix introduced by the Obama administration in recent years as officials acknowledged the law’s unrealistic standards. Under the new bill, the waiver system would go away in August 2016.

Politicians and educators in Washington state praised Congress’s passage of the new law Wednesday, saying it effectively restores control of education to state and local governments.

Anything that gets the federal government to kind of back away, and simplifies programs, is a good thing.

State Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, on updates to the federal No Child Left Behind Act

“Education is primarily a state and local community issue, and needs to be there and should be there,” said state Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup and the vice chairman of the state Senate education committee. “Anything that gets the federal government to kind of back away, and simplifies programs, is a good thing.”

Rich Wood, spokesman for the statewide teachers union, called the legislation “a victory for the students of Washington.” He said under No Child Left Behind, too much of students’ classroom instruction time has been focused on test preparation.

“They’re going to benefit from more time spent on learning rather than taking unnecessary standardized tests,” said Wood, who represents the Washington Education Association.

The bill would keep a key feature of No Child: the federally mandated statewide reading and math exams in grades three to eight and one such test in high school. But it would encourage states to limit the time students spend on testing, and it would diminish the high stakes associated with these exams for underperforming schools.

The measure would substantially limit the federal government’s role, barring the Education Department from telling states and local districts how to assess school and teacher performance.

States and districts would come up with their own goals for schools, design their own measures of achievement and progress, and decide independently how to turn around struggling schools. Testing would be one factor considered, but other measures of success or failure could include graduation rates and education atmosphere.

States would still be required to intervene in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, in high schools with high dropout rates and in schools with stubborn achievement gaps – something Democrats in Congress have pushed.

We will be able to move forward with making sure we know how our students are doing, but without the high-stakes testing, one-size fits all mandates from the federal government.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, about the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which she co-authored

The bill received support from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, as well as the nation’s governors, teachers unions and school administrators.

A key architect of the measure was U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, who worked closely on the bill with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee.

In a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, Murray said Congress coming together to fix “a broken law” defies Washington, D.C.’s current reputation for gridlock, while ensuring that states like Washington will no longer suffer as a result. No Child Left Behind has been up for reauthorization since 2007, but has gotten caught up in larger debates about the role of the federal government in education.

“We will be able to move forward with making sure we know how our students are doing, but without the high-stakes testing, one-size fits all mandates from the federal government,” Murray said.

Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary who now leads the Senate Education Committee, called the measure a “Christmas present” to 50 million children across the country. He said he hopes Obama “will wrap a big red bow around it … and send it to the children and the 3.4 million teachers who are looking forward to it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1