Welcome progress in fixing No Child Left Behind

Policymakers, educators and parents seem to agree on at least one thing about public education: The federal No Child Left Behind Act needs a major overhaul. But year after year, Congress essentially left it on autopilot by failing to reauthorize the legislation since its 2007 expiration.

Now a bipartisan Senate compromise announced Tuesday by Washington Democrat Patty Murray and Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander holds real promise for addressing the most egregious aspects of NCLB. It’s an important first step; now action is needed by the House, where a partisan stalemate has stalled progress.

NCLB is the 2001 legislation that deems a school to be “failing” unless almost all of its students meet state reading and math proficiency goals as measured on standardized tests. Those tests have succeeded in putting much-needed focus on the needs of low-income, disabled and minority students. But the law’s draconian punishment of schools that don’t meet its impossibly high bar – up to wholesale replacement of staff or even closing schools – has created turmoil in school districts.

Some states reacted by lowering their standards to improve student test scores and by cutting back or eliminating non-core subjects such as history, foreign languages and the arts. Test scores could be manipulated, and cheating scandals erupted. Some teachers unions went to the barricades protesting even minuscule use of standardized tests in their evaluations – another NCLB requirement.

In this state, lawmakers have bowed to union pressure and so far rejected using any testing component in teacher evaluations. That meant Washington lost its NCLB waiver, costing state school districts about $40 million a year in federal funds.

The Murray-Alexander bill rightfully wouldn’t end standardized testing or making test scores public, and it would take away the most punitive consequences of poor results. States, not the federal government, would decide how to handle schools that aren’t improving.

That’s a workable compromise that affords states more flexibility. Students’ individual progress must be tracked, and standardized tests are a good way to do that. Students who are falling behind can be identified and given extra help. Testing also gives administrators and parents comparative information on how schools and teachers are doing.

Eliminating testing and oversight of results could put too many schools back where they were before NCLB – unaccountable and unmotivated to take steps toward improvement. Schools most likely to fail under that scenario are ones that serve lower-income students.

The Murray-Alexander compromise isn’t going to please everyone; that’s the nature of compromise. And it’s likely to get roughed up in the House, where some Republicans are intent on amendments that would allow federal education money to follow students to private schools.

Unfortunately, reaching a Senate compromise is probably the easy part of fixing NCLB. The heavy lifting will be in the House, where the bipartisanship that motivated Murray and Alexander seems to be a rarer commodity.