Nan Austin

On Campus: Do-over for No Child Left Behind passes the House

The No Child Left Behind Act, cornerstone of President George W. Bush’s education policy, at last may be getting a long overdue renewal. But new versions strip away much of the original law’s idealistic intent and may not make it past the Democrat in the White House.

Signed in 2002 as an ambitious Republican extension of the federal education funding law, NCLB demanded that every student in the third through eighth grades be tested in math and English each year, with subject testing in high school. Over the next 12 years, ever-higher targets aimed to ensure every child – including special-education students, poor students and English learners – reached proficiency.

By 2014-15, every child in every school receiving Title I extra funding for poor kids was supposed to test at or higher than average. Schools that missed federal targets year after year faced sanctions and eventual closure or takeover by a charter school.

The impossibility of the law led to an explosion of workarounds, including turning away Title I funds to get off the list and, in some states, lowering standards so children tested higher.

The punitive law raised a generation of students on bubble tests, but it also did some sensible things. For example, it demanded that teachers be highly qualified, meaning have proper credentials for what they were teaching. A section created with input from the National PTA urged schools to promote parent involvement.

For the first time, it made districts accountable for progress of special-education students, formerly so shrouded by privacy concerns that no one knew how children with disabilities fared in different districts. It made testing data public, using numbers so clear there could be no excuses.

Efforts to reform the law have been ongoing since 2007 but, with a divided Congress, got nowhere. Now, a Republican-dominated Capitol is proposing another makeover for federal education funding that looks very different.

Legislation passed by the House of Representatives without a single Democratic vote, HR5, would end federal oversight of testing. Under the law, states would decide how to evaluate schools but would still need to test kids in some way and show progress at low-performing schools. It would eliminate the requirement that teachers be highly qualified but endorse using student achievement in evaluating teachers.

The committee’s summary of the law says it would streamline – and reduce – federal funding and funnel more money to magnet schools and charters. Under the proposal, 10 percent of the money would have to be spent outside traditional public school systems, calling it an “infusion of private sector innovation.”

It, and a Senate reauthorization bill proposed by Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., would change how Title I distributes funds, erasing extra money for districts with high concentrations of poor children.

The change would shift significant funding away from high-poverty districts such as Ceres Unified, Modesto City Schools and Riverbank Unified, where about 80 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. It would mean more money going to districts such as Denair, Hickman and Knights Ferry, where about 33 percent of students qualify as low income.

Expect this to be a hot topic in the months to come.

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, backed by the Center for Individual Rights, challenges the constitutionality of similar laws on teacher dues in 26 states. The lawsuit says the laws force teachers to pay for political activity with which they disagree, violating free speech rights.

“When unions use our dues money to block sensible reform and protect teachers who clearly do not belong in the classroom, it’s time to say enough is enough,” said lead plaintiff and elementary school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs.

Modesto teachers pay about $1,100 annually in dues, slightly higher than the state average of about $1,000. Generally, members who wish can opt out of paying the political activities portion (35 percent). But a statement from the center says opting out is difficult and those who do may be ostracized.

California’s powerful unions do a lot of lobbying, protecting a formidable bank of teacher employment rights and pension guarantees.

For instance, teachers can be laid off only if notified in writing before March 15 of the previous school year. Secretaries or janitors working at the same school can see their jobs disappear with only 60 days’ notice. Job protections mean teachers under a cloud sit home, often with full pay, while a succession of substitutes teach their classes.

Retirees, too, fare far better if the desk they left was in a classroom. The time to step down peaks around 63 for teachers, seven years sooner than under Social Security, which often pays less than half what a teacher earning the same amount can expect. And while Social Security bases its payout on a 35-year average, teacher retirements are based on a single year, when extra payments can boost benefits for decades to come.

Unions argue the balance lies in giving everyone those extra protections and benefits, not in taking them away from teachers. Those who disagree are turning to the courts rather than the union-lobbied legislature to strip them away.

Would unions backed only by voluntary dues be as effective in keeping all those teacher pluses in place? And if not, would the teachers in this latest lawsuit be willing to do without them?