On This Round of Education Reform, is Bipartisanship Dead?

Although the first major overhaul of the United States’ K-12 education law in a dozen years passed in the House of Representatives last week, the spirit of compromise that helped make its predecessor No Child Left Behind possible is much more difficult to find in Washington. The bill that passed the House, called the Student Success Act, did not receive a single Democratic vote, putting its future through the Senate, where Democrats hold the majority, in jeopardy.

The measure has drawn scorn from Democratic lawmakers for its severe curtailing of the role that the federal government plays in K-12 education. One of the Democratic NCLB supporters, Representative George Miller of California, called the attempt the “Letting Students Down Act” during floor debate.

According to Motoko Rich of The New York Times, the deep split between the two parties on education isn’t limited to Washington. Increasingly, opponents and supporters of the education reform movement that was ushered in by NCLB fell along predictable political lines. As American students struggle to compete against their international peers, both parties are looking for ways to point fingers at their opposition.

One group includes business executives, civil rights advocates and even some teachers’ union leaders who say the federal government must hold states and school districts accountable for rigorous standards. The other includes conservatives who want to limit the federal government who have found some common ground with more liberal groups that believe corporate and political interests have hijacked education reform.

“There are odd alliances,” said David M. Steiner, the dean of the School of Education at Hunter College in New York. “And it’s a very deep divide.”

However, even those who support education reform in principle still recoil at the emphasis NCLB placed on standardized testing and similar accountability measures. Yet without the testing, how are districts that have a history of ignoring their most vulnerable students supposed to be monitored to make sure they’re really improving?

“We can’t forget what districts were allowed to do to black kids and brown kids and poor kids before No Child Left Behind,” said Joshua Starr, the superintendent of Montgomery County schools in Maryland. “Unfortunately, a lot of the conversations continue to perpetuate wrongheaded accountability. It’s still about too much standardized testing. But without the accountability measures for states and districts, I do fear what happens to the equity agenda.”

Within the debate over the the Student Success Act spins the increasingly-volatile Common Core Standards tornado. SSA prohibits the Department of Education from forcing states to adopt the Standards as a condition for receiving federal education funding.