The United States Education Department is constantly under fire these days, especially as American students continue to lag behind the rest of the world in most of the key subjects. But the issue isn’t only one of school size and teacher quality, as politicians are pointing to the other party’s failures with education to help sway elections. Last week, Mitt Romney took the opportunity to trash President Obama on what he perceives as too much input by special interests in our public schools. The U.S. Department of Education has responded with a renewed effort to unshackle states from federal control. It all comes down to the repeal of the No Child Left Behind policy, the 2001 education law that most consider a failure. According to Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, eight additional states will no longer be beholden to this policy.
Under the broad regulations of No Child Left Behind, all students in the country had to take a standardized test in math and English skills, and the results could lead to federal sanctions on a school district. Now, states are being allowed to use aspects of Obama’s education policy to get around many of the No Child Left Behind provisions. Basically, a school district can submit their own standards, accountability systems and teacher evaluations, and if the Department of Education accepts them, the districts would be freed from NCLB.
The first approvals were handed out three months ago, to eleven states that applied. Now eight more states will join them, including Louisiana, Delaware, New York, Maryland, Connecticut, Ohio, Rhode Island and North Carolina. Washington D.C. and seventeen additional states applied, but are still under review, and Vermont dropped out of the application process.
NCLB expired five years ago, and Obama wanted the law overhauled by Congress by the end of 2010, but no reform found consensus on both sides of the aisle. NCLB is thought to have failed because it encouraged mediocrity on the part of the educator, and held widely disparate school districts, with vastly different resources, to the same arbitrary standard. But until the bipartisan debate finds some sort of middle ground, it is unclear when a long term fix will be implemented.
It was surprising that the Department of Education announced these changes so closely on the heels of presidential candidate Romney’s comments. Obama has declared on record that fixing our educational system is an issue that can’t wait, while Romney is using the delay to prove that the change Obama promised during his initial presidential campaign has not materialized. It makes for striking rhetoric, but doesn’t seem to further clarify a hugely important issue to our children, and the future of the country.
Romney has offered up his own plan, which confusingly calls for more state autonomy as well as additional federal control. His focus is clearly directed at giving parents more choice as to where they send their kids to school. But besides an increase in distance education, there doesn’t seem to be any strategy for holding schools more accountable. All in all it’s pretty vague. What the education system really needs are answers, but this latest round of NCLB rollback and political commentary only seems to cloud the issue with more and more questions.
Evan Fischer is a freelance writer and part-time student at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California.