Written by Marianne Mansfield
Before long, school buildings across the state will welcome back their students. Some return after a several month break, others a hiatus of just a few weeks. As a former elementary principal, I looked forward to this time with a mix of excitement and melancholy. Students aren’t the only ones who enjoy the freedom and flexibility of summer.
As the doors to the school houses crank open this fall, those who care about public education need to be particularly vigilant this school year, as federal legislators once again try to “help” states manage how they educate their students.
There are few, either inside the ranks of educators or beyond, who would deny that the last attempt by the feds to try to “help” was a miserable failure. That attempt, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act of 2001, was disastrous. With its overly burdensome reporting requirements, unrealistic testing expectations and absolutely crazed standards for teaching and learning, the law all but paralyzed well-meaning and dedicated educators. We scurried from pillar to post trying to learn from others how to keep ahead of the ever-changing regulations. We changed directions at escape velocity, always hoping we’d finally gotten our hands wrapped around what the feds wanted. In reality, what we wanted to wrap our hands around was the necks of those same feds.
Not everything was bad about NCLB. It did spark lively discussions about the metrics of education and the importance of addressing the needs of various subgroups of students. In the main, however, it was mostly just a pain in the tukas.
Almost since its enactment, state and federal legislators have railed against the crazy-making maze of requirements in the NCLB, fueled by increasingly strident complaints coming from the educational community. And during this hot and humid summer session, the two chambers have finally gotten down to the business of doing something about it.
This month, both the House and the Senate passed bills re-authorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The House version is known as the Student Success Act, and the Senate version is the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015. It is now up to a conference committee—comprised of members from both parties in the House and the Senate—to come up with a compromise version that will pass both houses and will be beyond the threat of a President Obama veto.
So how does this impact the Beehive State? Let’s begin by taking a look at how our Senators (Hatch and Lee) and representatives (Stewart, Bishop, Love and Chavez) have positioned themselves.
Senator Mike Lee’s stance, as described on his website is short and sweet. Return control over educational decisions to local entities and return tax dollars to the states. He has signed on as co-sponsor to several bills supporting the ECAA.
Senator Orrin Hatch actually took to social media to explain how his amendments to ECAA would improve the bill and make things better for Utah educators and students. In his three minute video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7oRt3cVkVw Senator Hatch explains the benefits of ECAA: allowing states to develop their own standards for curriculum and assessment. He also describes how his Pay for Success amendment will allow school districts and small businesses to develop and implement plans for innovative programs. He cites the success of Utah’s plan for expanding access to preschool education for at-risk children as an example that should be emulated by other states. Finally, Senator Hatch describes an amendment he has also offered to protect student privacy as the use of technology in the schools increases. These mostly make sense to me.
Turning to the House of Representatives, the Utah delegation speaks with a unified voice. Local control at nearly any price. Congressman Rob Bishop, a former teacher of 28 years, also supports tuition tax credits and vouchers. Representatives Chris Stewart and Mia Love have little to say about education—at least on their websites—other than to laud the benefits of local control and to confirm that they have voted to replace NCLB. Jason Chaffetz is straightforward. He opposes increased federal interference in education. He goes one step further, however, in describing his position. He lists “rapid enrollment growth and large numbers of children as a percentage of total population” as challenges that justify Utah developing educational reforms that differ from other states. This, I believe, is significant and is a disquieting indicator of what might be coming down the road for education in Utah.
I’m all for local control… to a point. So I can board the Utah delegation’s bandwagon as far as that goes. I’ve already said that I was no fan of No Child Left Behind, so I’m still on board when the wagon stops at the station called “Replace It.” Where I want to get off and check my map is where we begin to support 50 different educational systems cropping up, each to address the ‘unique’ challenges of 50 different states. I think that is unwise and could lead to costly and frustrating fragmentation of effort. There are certain educational standards that have stood the test of time. All students across our country should be exposed to them. To make them optional is wrong.
While the implementation of the Common Core Standards may have gone awry, their authors, educators themselves, held to some educational tenets that are deceptively simple. All students should be able to think independently, speak persuasively, evaluate evidence and understand other perspectives. Isn’t this what we want our 21st century citizens to do? I think it is.
Local flexibility is not without its merits, of course, and to the extent that it is exercised in conjunction with some basic, common sense notions about what constitutes sound educational practice, I can support it. States do have challenges that are unique to them, and educators at the ground level deserve flexibility in addressing them.
If we gain nothing else from the debacle of No Child Left Behind, we should understand that the role of federal intervention in what goes on in the classrooms across the nation needs to be limited. We also must acknowledge, however, that there exist certain educational behaviors that all students need to develop to become contributors not only to their localities and not only to their states of residence, but also to their nation and ultimately to their world.
If Utah can pull that off, I’ll hop back on the bandwagon.
Marianne Mansfield has lived in southern Utah since 2010. She and her husband followed their grandchildren to this area from Michigan. In her former life, she was a public school educator. More than half of her career was spent as an elementary principal, which is why her response to most challenges is, “This isn’t my first rodeo.” She grew up in Indiana and attended Miami of Ohio, Ball State University and Michigan State. She is a loyal MSU Spartan and Detroit Tiger baseball fan. She has been writing fiction and opinion since her retirement in 2004.