New Federal Education Bill Leaves Teachers Behind

By Cassie Bayer

In December of 2015, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA, in an effort to undo the lasting damage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), deemphasizes overgeneralized student assessment scores as a measure of achievement. Rather, the new bill puts more authority into the hands of school districts and states to allocate funding where they see fit. Championed by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) with Representative John Kline (R-MN), the bill garnered support from both sides of the aisle.

Yet, while it marks the first movement in federal education reform in over a decade, ESSA may yield more benefits to private-market firms than educators.

At first glance, ESSA seems a savior for teachers who, prior to its enactment, were typically evaluated based on standardized test data. For educators in low-income, under-resourced districts, systematically low scores meant little hope of salary increase. Upon further inspection, however, ESSA is not such a large departure from NCLB in terms of teacher evaluations. Under the new legislation, teachers would be evaluated against test scores by their respective districts, rather than standards determined by the federal government.

Aside from the evaluation process, ESSA poses other threats to teachers. First, just because districts have more autonomy in allocating funding, there is little assurance that teachers will see that benefit. Second, the nature of funding is likely to change. Given its bipartisan nature, the Act has retained vestiges of conservative demands: in particular, the Pay for Success clause. Proposed by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) in 2015, Pay for Success allows private investors who lend upfront financing to education programs to profit from returns with interest.  The Senator claims that education ought to be a privately or commercially funded enterprise “rather than [be] limited by what federal bureaucrats at the Department of Education think is best.”

Despite Congressional support, major leaders in education have already come out vocally against the bill. One such critic, former assistant U.S. Education Secretary Diane Ravitch, has labeled the Clause a “money-making scheme.” Building on this claim, Dr. Mercedes Schneider, author of A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education, fears there will be opportunities for wrongdoing: “the lure of Pay for Success is the money. So in states where market-based education reform has taken hold, it is more likely to be heralded as benevolence and the profit motive downplayed– and it will likely to lead to scandal.”

By changing traditional funding structure and governance, ESSA is ushering in an era of uncertainty for educators. However, while the future of teacher evaluations and private-market intervention raise clear concerns, ESSA may offer much needed changes for students. The law aims to increase resources to underfunded districts and more closely align tests to district goals. If successful, schools across the country – even in urban, low-income areas – could see major improvements. However, if ESSA does not rectify the Pay for Success clause, there is little hope for true progress. National education reform that neglects the value of educators and proceeds without teacher support is one that is certainly doomed to fail

Cassie Bayer is a student at the Goldman School of Public Policy and a member of the Policy Matters Journal editorial staff. Before coming to Goldman, Cassie did two years of service with the Teach for America program, teaching history to high school students in Brooklyn, New York.