Countless teachers and parents breathed a sign of relief in early December when the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the Bush era neoliberal counter-reform of education policy passed in 2002, finally expired. NCLB was the opening in what became a sustained project of educational privatization, which has since been expanded to include things like the federal Race to the Top grant program and the Common Core initiative. Busting teacher unions, shrinking educational horizons, public school closures and ‘doing more with less’ are on the order of the day.
No Child Left Behind has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), supported by President Obama and signed into law on December 10 with broad bipartisan support: 85 to 12 in the Senate, and 359 to 64 in the House of Representatives.1 The fact that the Democrats and Republicans agree so much on education policy is itself very educational. The two education workers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), representing 4.5 million workers together, are vocal proponents too. So can Every Student Succeeds live up to expectations?
With the state of public education today, it would take radical measures to reverse decades of attacks on teachers and students, particularly poor and minority students. A few statistics paint the picture: low income children are now the majority of public school students, the average2 student / teacher ratio is 24:1, and teachers continue to be paid much less than similarly qualified professionals in other sectors.
But the Every Student Succeeds Act won’t fundamentally shift education policy. To be fair, there are some modest but positive aspects to the bill, reflecting the pressure exerted by organized teachers, students and parents in recent years. There will be a $250 million annual preschool grant program for low income children, an arts education grant program, and an end to NCLB’s rigid “Adequate Yearly Progress” metric, which was a cudgel used to push through closures, takeovers and mass firings at schools performing below average.
But ESSA still leaves almost the whole structure of No Child Left Behind intact; most of the changes are only cosmetic. Despite some rhetoric from the President about education being “so much more than filling in the right bubbles,” the myopic focus on high-stakes testing will stay, just with authority handed to the states instead of the federal government. The narrowing curriculum, high stress and inordinate resources diverted from well-rounded education toward rote ‘teaching to the test’ will still be with us, along with sanctions for underperforming schools.
So Every Student Succeeds isn’t the cause for celebration it’s made out to be. What we need is not tinkering with the neoliberal project but a program for expanding, democratizing and fully funding public education.