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New Education Law Passes, With A Power Shift Back To The States

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., joined by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., (right) and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks to reporters after the Senate voted overwhelmingly to end debate on the makeover of the widely criticized No Child Left Behind Act.
J. Scott Applewhite

The Senate voted 85-12 on Wednesday to pass the long-awaited rewrite of the much-maligned No Child Left Behind law. President Obama says he'll sign it Thursday.

The new version — called the Every Student Succeeds Act — returns much government oversight of schools to the states and curtails or eliminates the federal role in many areas. Critics of NCLB are celebrating its demise.

But the question now is, what exactly are states and local school districts going to do that they couldn't do before?

Critics say there's no guarantee that states will succeed where the old law failed in two crucial areas: closing the achievement gap and raising the performance of the absolute worst schools.

But Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., says at least they'll be able to take a breath. Murray, who co-authored the new law, says NCLB was too prescriptive, too punitive and unworkable.

"I heard from parents, teachers and students how the over-emphasis on testing and one-size-fits-all response has taken the focus off our kids' learning," she says.

So now, the message from Washington to the states is this: You will have no one to blame but yourselves if your failing schools don't improve or if you allow local districts to shun tougher standards or better tests.

Murray says the aim is not to punish the schools, but to improve curriculum and instruction.

"We're putting out to the states who've been telling us they can do this, that they will meet these requirements in a better way," she says. "We all have to watch and make sure they do."

Still, that doesn't mean the federal government will be left twiddling its thumbs.

"The federal government will still have the authority to address the needs and outcomes that aren't being met," says Carissa Miller of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state superintendents.

The U.S. Education Department will still have the authority to sanction states that don't test their kids every year, or that don't report the results by race, ethnicity, income and special needs.

But Miller says states will have a lot more freedom to try new approaches to reducing the achievement gap, helping high poverty schools improve and tackling other big problems like poor graduation rates.

But there's a catch, says Bob Wise, the former West Virginia governor who now heads the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington education advocacy group.

"The real test is going to be whether there is the political will to take data and turn it into action versus just reporting what they've been reporting for the last 15 years," Wise says.

He says the success of this sweeping change in the federal-state relationship is riding almost entirely on one question: Can we trust states to do the right thing?

Wise is optimistic.

"We've got 50 states that, in the last five years, have all adopted a much higher set of standards, meaning students need to be college and career-ready," he says. "There's more research and development of what's working."

In other words, he says we're not going to see a race to the bottom, as was the case when states initially responded to No Child Left Behind.

But that may be too rosy a picture, says Tom Gentzel, the executive director of the National School Boards Association. He says the federal government won't be breathing down people's necks anymore. Instead, local officials will come under a new level of scrutiny, especially from parents and civil rights groups.

Now, says Gentzel, everyone will need to come together and zero in on the two huge issues the law does not adequately address: teacher quality and fair funding.

"State governments need to step up and do their part to support the work of local school districts," says Gentzel. "We're deeply committed to make that happen."

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