Wyo. Lawmakers Send Power Over Education To State

Dec 11, 2015

Student At Hot Springs County High School.
Credit Bob Beck

 

It took Congress eight years and countless hours of listening to angry teachers and parents, but 'No Child Left Behind' is soon to be a thing of the past.

Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi is now the Budget Chairman, but once upon a time he was the top Republican on the Education Committee. So he’s been calling for this education overhaul for some time. But Enzi said he wasn’t surprised that it took so long to scrap the law.

“Actually, we’ve got bills whose authorization expired as early as 1983 so seven years on something as important as education is not a surprise.”

Lawmakers were supposed to overhaul 'No Child Left Behind' in 2007 but they couldn't bridge the ideological divide. That's left a patchwork across the nation as the Obama Administration encouraged states to embrace Common Core standards while granting waivers to some 43 states. Enzi said this overhaul marks a significant breakthrough.

“I tried to get it through several times when I was the ranking member. There’s always a tendency to go for more than what you can really get and that’s a situation the Democrats were trying to do, and this time, it was a bipartisan bill.”

Enzi added that the new bill gives states the leeway they've been craving. 

“This gets rid of the National School Board or any possibility for the National School Board or any possibility for the president to do what he’s done on education. That’s a huge change and it will be beneficial to the kids of Wyoming” said Enzi.

The new bill decreases the power of the Education Secretary but still enables the Department to compel states and school districts. Critics fear the bill allows states to go back to a system that allows students to fall through the cracks. Virginia Congressman Bobby Scott is the top Democrat on the Education Committee. He said the federal government retains carrots and sticks. 

“The ultimate authority of course is to withhold funds, but hopefully, you never get to that. You just argue and ask for different improvements in the plan and work with people so that I mean the idea is not to way with the funding the idea is to educate the children.”

No Child Left Behind was intended to focus more resources on minorities and low-income students. Scott said he fears those groups will continue to fall through the gaps with the new bill.

“The achievement gaps racial and ethnic have been slowly closing over the years. One gap that is problematic is the income gap. Low-income students are doing not nearly as well as upper-income students.”

Enzi sees things quite differently.

“He can only threaten to withhold funds on things that are against the law. We just changed the law so there’s hardly anything that can be against the law. There are still a few tests that have to be given, but the state can determine which ones and how they’re going to count. Before you even had to count it a certain way you had to use it for teacher evaluations. That’s the biggest reason there is a bipartisan bill on this.”

Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis was the only Wyoming lawmaker in D.C. to oppose the bill. But she said that’s because they watered-down the House passed bill when her chamber and the Senate conferenced together to hammer out differences.

“I’ll tell you the conference committee report is way better than the Senate bill and is better than current law. So it was a very close call for me. But at the end of the day, I just decided my heart was with the House version so that’s why I cast a no vote.”

Lummis complained that it didn’t cut or consolidate as many programs as she would have liked

“It remained flat funding instead of increasing. And because I think education is a state responsibility and not a federal responsibility, the House language included options for parents to get out of this constant testing.”  

Senator Enzi isn’t as strident. He also thinks it’s a huge improvement from the constraints put on Wyoming educators under 'No Child Left Behind'.

“One of the things I’ve learned is you take what you can get and then you keep working on what you want.”

It took eight years for lawmakers to agree on the changes needed to overhaul 'No Child Left Behind'. Analysts say it may be another eight years or even a decade for them to assess how their reforms are working in classrooms across the nation.