Conservatives have been fighting Common Core national education standards for two years at the state level, but a massive bill steamrolling through Congress has the potential to cement some of the most despised elements of Common Core into federal law.
The re-authorization and rewriting of No Child Left Behind – also known as ESEA, or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 – has been placed on a fast track in the House and Senate. It will chart the course of the federal role in education for years to come.
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Conservative critics have lambasted No Child Left Behind as the main source of federal overreach into education while those on the left have also criticized it for punishing low-performing schools in disadvantaged areas. The law, combined with President Obama's ESEA "waivers," allowed states to get grants if they accepted federal rules and regulations. Both the original law and Obama's waivers loaded up states with federal mandates and measured compliance through incessant testing and data-mining of students and teachers.
Yet, the long-awaited effort to rewrite and reauthorize this landmark legislation now working its way through Congress has drawn surprisingly little attention from conservative action groups.
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Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., has a companion bill in the House. Both bills are extremely complex and lengthy. A draft bill in the Senate is nearly 400 pages, and the companion draft in the House is 597 pages long. By the time they are marked up as formal bills, each is expected to be over 1,000 pages.
Alexander's hearings began two weeks ago in the Senate but have thus far focused mainly on one small facet of ESEA re-authorization, the national testing component, which tracks the progress of how well teachers are teaching to the test. While this is a controversial element, it only accounts for about 14 pages of the 397 pages that have been released so far by Alexander's committee.
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Kline, in a summary on his website, says the House version would give states and local school districts more control over federal education dollars, but conservative activists who have read it disagree.
They say both bills require collection of non-academic data such as students' attitudes, values, dispositions and beliefs, in a "womb to workforce" tracking system mandated for any states that accept federal education dollars, which is all 50 states.
ESEA as currently written would allow tracking through the creation of a unique ID number for every student, teacher and principal, with data fed into longitudinal databases being set up in every state with federal grants.
The bills would also promote greater "choice" by converting most public schools to Title I disadvantaged schools and have education dollars follow the student, whether that student attends public school, a charter school, private or parochial school. How local, elected school boards increase control if large numbers of public-school students move into publicly funded charter schools run by unelected boards remains a mystery.
Also up for decision is whether to apply the federal ESEA rules to early education, meaning daycares and preschools. Data collection could then start basically at birth or shortly after. This is a policy advocated by professor James Heckman, the Nobel laureate economist at the University of Chicago, in a Feb. 9 op-ed in Roll Call.
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The testing of toddlers' proficiency in various "social and emotional skills" should begin well before kindergarten, Heckman argues.
Heckman even suggests that "emotional and social skills" are more important than academic skills in determining a student's worth to society.
"Persistence, impulse control, self-awareness, consideration and team work are essential skills in today’s labor market and are better predictors of success in life than the current battery of tests we now employ to measure cognitive ability and rate the performance of schools," he writes.
Conservative groups have argued for years that turning children over to government-run preschools and daycares is no substitute for parental nurturing, and the evidence shows that poor children enrolled in the federal Head Start program have no greater likelihood of succeeding in high school or college than those who did not participate in Head Start.
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Heckman is not convinced.
"ESEA would be greatly improved if it helped states connect early learning and preschool with K-12 education," Heckman writes. "The country would also benefit if ESEA took into account the importance of teaching and measuring character skills, not just cognitive skills, in evaluating school performance."
A toddler in daycare or preschool who shows signs of anti-social behavior would then be designated as "at risk" and placed in a remedial program. That could involve mental health treatment, and even medication.
Conservative groups such as the Home School Legal Defense Association and Eagle Forum said they were not ready Monday to offer a position on the ESEA re-authorization bills in Congress.
"Some folks alerted us to it last week," said Michael Farris Jr. of the Home School Legal Defense Association, which has traditionally advised homeschool families not to accept public tax dollars if they don't want to abide by federal rules.
The group's legislative director, Will Estrada, is reviewing the draft bill and will soon be prepared to give a response.
"For now, we have stated publicly and in meetings with Chairman Alexander’s staff that any ESEA re-authorization bill that is introduced in the Senate should include strong anti-Common Core language, and we are urging them to include Senator (Pat) Roberts’ language."
The Eagle Forum's legislative director, Kevin Baird, said the House bill is moving fast. But because of the bill's length and complexity, Eagle Forum needs more time to review and study the language.
"We're studying it now and hope to be prepared to make a statement later this week," Baird told WND.
Progressives support ESEA reauthorization
While conservative groups are still studying the bill, progressives are coming out in favor of the re-authorization of ESEA in no uncertain terms.
A coalition of 34 center-left and leftist organizations issued a release Feb. 4 calling for a "strong ESEA re-authorization."
Some of the signatories to the letter include the National Council of La Raza; the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network; Teach for America; Democrats for Education Reform; American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; the NAACP; National Indian Education Association; Teach Plus; the National Urban League; the Business Roundtable; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and the Education Trust. These are many of the same groups that have been lobbying hardest for Common Core.
Meanwhile the anti-Common Core bill put forth by Sen. Roberts, R-Kansas, will do nothing to actually stop Common Core, says one education activist and privacy advocate who is also an expert on the national student assessment industry.
"Sen. Roberts' bill is a neutered bill," said Anita Hoge of Pennsylvania Against Common Core. "All they're doing is repeating what's already in the General Education Provisions Act, section 432, and what that says is the federal government can't direct or supervise curriculum. So when you look at the Roberts bill, it says the same thing. It has nothing to do with Common Core. Nothing."
That's because Common Core did not emanate from the federal level.
While it creates nationalized standards, the Common Core was brought forth by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, which hold the copyright to the standards even though they were developed with help from reformers within the U.S. Department of Education.
"They're not the savior, those bills. It will do nothing to stop Common Core. I can't say it enough times. Nothing," Hoge said. "It's a means to sidetrack people in the grassroots and they are not stopping Common Core, or stopping the invasion of privacy of the kids in the re-authorization of ESEA."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is working with Alexander on the Senate education committee to get ESEA re-authorization passed and the Democratic leadership is on board with the bill, sources say, even though Obama has stayed out of the debate, not mentioning it in his State of the Union address, perhaps for strategic reasons.
The only issue that has been hotly debated so far is how closely teachers will be monitored and held accountable for the test results of their students.
"So Democrats, President Obama, are working with Republicans to get this thing passed," Hoge said.
One leading teachers' advocate who is not on board with the bill is Mercedes Schneider of Louisiana, who authored the whistleblower book, "A Chronicle of Echoes: Who's Who in the Implosion of American Education," which is an indictment of the failed federal experiments in public education.
Schneider sent an email to Alexander last week telling him to slow down on ESEA re-authorization and take it off the fast track.
"Time to curb the federal role. ESEA is 15 years off track and has been punishing American public education since it became NCLB (No Child Left Behind)," she told the senator in her email. "ESEA is no longer helping us.
"Please sunset ESEA and NCLB. Instead, consider block grants without federal puppetry via federal rules that cripple state functioning."
"It looks like your 400 rushed pages will only burden states and erase state control over education as you write in that money follows the student," Schneider added.
At its current pace, the bill could reach the floor by early to mid-March.
Many educators are also looking to Diane Ravitch for cues on whether to support the final version of ESEA. She is a research professor at New York University, a blogger and a former U.S. assistant secretary of education.
"Everyone is looking at Diane Ravitch for leadership, and that will lead them right over the cliff," Hoge said. "She is focusing on the test, and that's only part of it; the remediation, the identification, the database, everything else that is in the rest of the bill, no one is addressing. The teachers and the principals will also have a unique ID number that connects them to the kids in the schools, so if they don't meet the outcomes that have been agreed upon, they will be fired. Yes, that is happening, but that's not the only thing that's happening."
If states are able to flow more federal money into Title I, that would bring far more children under the rules of the U.S. Department of Education. The draft bill portends to "close the education gap" between high-performing and low-performing schools, but how that's done is a matter of controversy. Some are advocating for the best teachers to be assigned to the low-performing schools.
Violating privacy of students and families
Hoge's group is asking Alexander to stop the re-authorization of ESEA.
"This legislation violates federal law, the privacy of our children and families, our civil rights, and states' rights," she said.
She said parents have not been invited to testify at Alexander's hearings.
"Parents demand new hearings and an investigation on the impact of this legislation," a statement from Pennsylvania Against Common Core said.
"The Re-authorization of ESEA must be stopped because the provisions inherent in this legislation will nationalize education," Hoge said. "Two years of the ESEA flexibility waiver have proven to the states that have accepted this waiver, exactly what the re-authorization will mean – total federal control of education; no state authority, and no local school board autonomy."
The grants in each state create a national ID for every child, using data to monitor every child in the United States under Title I, Hoge said.
"Why hasn't anyone testified to the fact that, in effect, the poverty guidelines, as now allowed, are being manipulated to include ALL children in the ESEA Flexibility Waiver, 2013, under the Title I blanket that mandates Common Core to every child."