Congress Needs to Reauthorize and Repair ESEA

Near the top of Congress's to-do list should be updating the main federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

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Congress has a lot of work to do as it comes back to session this week. Near the top of its to-do list should be updating the main federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA. That will take a big lift, but it can be done. And it should be done. Our nation’s schools depend on it.

ESEA was originally passed in 1965 to help schools address problems associated with poverty, and it must be reauthorized every five years. Congress last reauthorized the law in 2002 and renamed it No Child Left Behind. NCLB would have been revised in 2007, but a series of setbacks left it operating on autopilot. Two weeks ago President Barack Obama called on Congress to reauthorize ESEA by the start of the next school year, which would fall around the week of September 6, the day after Labor Day.

Besides needing reauthorization, ESEA is badly in need of repairs. The law’s accountability system isn’t working. Schools are required to implement improvement strategies that are not strong enough to help them improve, and they get zero credit for making growth. The law’s teacher policy ensures teachers have degrees and credentials but doesn’t make sure they’re effective at improving student learning. And the law’s investment in such things as supplemental educational services—policy-speak for tutoring—have proven weak levers for helping schools get better.

The president and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warned federal policymakers that 82 percent of schools will be labeled failing next year under ESEA’s outdated accountability system. The administration also put out a blueprint for reforming ESEA just over a year ago, and it is urging swift action to update federal law along the lines of the blueprint.

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