Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The New ESEA: Sturm or Drang?

The new version of ESEA is called the Every Student Succeeds Act, which is a fine sine of the sort of aspirational nonsense that legislators are capable of. Why not the Every Child Gets a Pony Act, or the Every Child Is Smart, Good-Looking and Above Average Act?

The most notable thing about the act is that it is 1,061 pages long. It is the Moby Dick Travels to Middle Earth of regulation. The second most-notable thing is that it has been spit out by committee on a fast track that allows pretty much nobody to actually look at the thing, including the people who are poised to vote on it. Make a note of this fast-track legislative prestidigitation the next time some some pundit ponders how politics got so tangled in education. Once again, politics have been hardwired into public education's dna.

I am not exactly a low-information voter on these issues, and I have not a chance to really check out those 1,061 pages. But some folks have been doing super work with it. The folks at EdWeek's K-12 have been doing super work (here, here, or here for starters) and Mercedes Schneider has apparently doing without sleep to work on this (here and here). Daniel Katz has put together a good compendium of what's out there as well.

There are things to hate. TFA, charter schools, and the folks who love social impact bonds have gotten good value from their lobbyists. The path has been leveled for Competency Based Education. And probably most hateable of all, the damned stupid Big Standardized Test is all its yearly waste-of-timeliness has been enshrined in law once again.

There are things to love. Most notably, in what may really be an historic moment, a federal agency has had power taken away. USED is told to go sit in the corner and shut up. Although there are also opportunities for it to weasel its way back into power again.

Which is part of the wonder and terror of a bill like this. Nobody knows what all is in it. And even when they figure out what's in it, nobody knows what that means. Bills like this are an exercise in committee style compromise, which is all about letting every person get in a piece of language that makes them (or their favorite lobbyists) happy-- and not at all about figuring out what the resulting language will actually mean to the people who have to live by it.

Some of this law is going to end up in court. And some of it will be... well, who knows. It's worth remembering that states have long been mandated, by law, to develop and execute a plan by which the most highly effective teachers would be moved to the most troubled schools. That law has never been enforced in any meaningful way at all. Over the years ahead, it will not just be what the law says, but what the authorities think the law says, what the courts think the law says, and what laws the People In Charge want to bother enforcing.

Bodies of regulation like this are rewritten on the ground all the time. What changes under the New ESEA is the USED's power to unilaterally write whatever laws tickle their fancy this week.

A huge number of people are deeply pissed about the bill. BATs are accused on their Facebook page of being sellouts, and conservative commentators are up in arms because the new law doesn't go far enough toward actually dissolving the Department of Education. Neither of these is the position of a grown-up who lives in a nominal democracy.

At times like this, I remind myself that this is a marathon. It is a journey of a million steps. To imagine that a legislative package can be crafted that will set public education On The Right Path or Fix All Our Problems is to engage in the same sort of magical thinking that lead reformsters to think that Common Core would "fix" schools.

The corporate interest in public education is never going away. There's a lot of money in education, and it will always draw those people as surely as cow poop draws flies. There will always be powerful amateurs who think they know the secrets of education. There will always be politicians who would like to please as many voters and well-financed election backers as they possibly can. There will always be bad ideas that become popular in education. The current struggles will always be going on.

The goal cannot be to find and fight that one big apocalyptic battle that will End It All, because that's just not happening. Those of us who are standing up for public education will win the current arguments because the reformsters are wrong, their ideas are failures, and eventually they will get bored with losing and move on-- but there will be other messes to take their place. If your thought was that we'd somehow get a great New ESEA and you'd be able to relax and stop worrying about the assault on public education-- well, I have a bridge that runs over some Florida swampland to sell you.

In the meantime, we need to speak up against what we see that is wrong and argue against what will make matters worse. I've been busy emailing my representatives and I hope you have been, too, telling them what parts of the new bill need to be improved or removed (as well as arguing for a period of actually looking at the damn thing before passing it). I'm not excited about the New ESEA, but I don't oppose its passage because on the matter of stripping power from the USED alone it is an improvement over the current arrangement. It has been handled badly, it has many terrible parts, and it sets the stage for more problems with privatizing public ed. But at the moment I see it as a small step in the right direction, and in the journey of a million steps, one step in the right direction is okay. We've still got a million more steps to go.

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