Local school boards can’t replace national ed policy

The News TribuneJuly 21, 2013 

Advice for school supporters who’ve been clamoring for the repeal of No Child Left Behind: Be careful what you wish for.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday showed what repeal could look like, and it’s ugly.

The Republican-led House gets credit for leaving in place the single most valuable part of the 2001 law – the requirement that school districts test kids in multiple grades and reveal how poor and minority students are performing.

Prior to 2001, it was all too easy for districts to conceal abysmal failures with, say, American Indians or black males by folding their scores into much higher overall averages. Since the enactment of No Child Left Behind, educators and administrators have had to own the performance of disadvantaged groups.

The House would also jettison the utopian goal of bringing virtually every kid in America to proficiency in reading and math by 2014. That never was going to happen. President Obama has already more or less nullified the 2014 deadline by granting exemptions to dozens of states.

But the bill approved Friday would tear the guts out of national oversight of public education. It would remove a slew of key federal mandates, including any requirement that teachers be evaluated and that states do something about failing schools.

Local control is the mantra driving these abdications of federal responsibility. The idea is that school boards – not silly bureaucrats in the capital – know best how to educate their children.

That’s true of some school districts, but there are far too many exceptions. The notion that all school boards are solely focused on student success is a pleasant fiction.

Many boards are clueless about academic standards. In some communities, their chief goal is to keep spending low and taxes down. Many are cowed or owned by unions. Some have a history of indifference toward the poor or minorities.

The idolization of local control is one of the reasons American public education has been falling behind the education systems of competing nations in Asia and Europe.

Nearly all top-performing countries have national standards and expectations of accountability. Details can be left to locals, but performance is non-negotiable.

Another way to spell local control is “less money.” The House is honest about the connection. It would cut federal funding of public education by $1 billion, and it would no longer require states to maintain previous levels of education funding as a condition of accepting federal money.

The idea of leaving no child behind may not have been a wild success, but leaving them all behind would not be an improvement.

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