The End of the Era of Accountability?

So suggests Sam Dillon in his New York Times report this morning, “State Challenges Seen As Whittling Away Federal Education Law.”  Dillon tracks the origins of the newest revolt against No Child Left Behind to Montana, where its education secretary, Denise Juneau, wrote to Arne Duncan last April informing him that the Big Sky state wasn’t going to follow what was once considered the nation’s premier accountability law.

“We won’t raise our annual [NCLB-mandated] objectives this year,” Juneau later told a group of school chiefs from ten rural states, Dillon reports. And “we’re not asking for permission.”

Dillon says that “half a dozen other states have joined the chorus in recent weeks, using less defiant language but still asking for relief from the testing mandates.”  But he quotes Larry Shumway, superintendent of schools in Utah, another breakaway state, sounding pretty inflammatory:

Pretty soon all the schools will be failing in America, and at that point the law becomes meaningless….  States are going to sit and watch federal accountability implode. We’re seeing the end of an era.

That may be how it looks to some failing states.  But the picture is far more nuanced than that; in fact, if you throw waivers and cheaters and union-busters into the debate, one might say that we’re experiencing a bit of an accountability brain freeze at the moment.  And the Republican-controlled House of Representatives seems content to do nothing about it.

But before wading into the politics of it, let’s recall the good news reported by William Howell, Martin West, and Paul Peterson in their recent public opinion survey. We don’t appear to be at the end of the accountability era:

Nine years after the enactment of No Child Left Behind, the public’s appetite for standardized tests appears undiminished. More than two in three Americans believe that the federal government should “continue to require that all students be tested in math and reading each year in grades 3–8 and once in high school,” whereas less than 10 percent actually oppose this requirement. Roughly three in four affluent respondents support the regular administration of tests, as do similar shares of African Americans and Hispanics. Only among teachers does there appear a nontrivial segment of the population that opposes existing testing practices. Even so, majorities of teachers support annual testing of lower-school students and a single test for high school students.

This suggests that the current revolt may not be as populist as it may seem, and that the new pushback against accountability may, in fact, be a lot like the original one: teacher unions and their deeply imbedded institutional allies doing what they do best. But as is usual in education debates, strange bedfellows abound. And the current swirl around accountability has a new twist with the states-rights revolt, as Dillon suggests, fanned by Tea Party sentiment — a threat to reform that didn’t exist in the early days of NCLB.

Last May, Rep. John Kline, who heads up the House Education Committee, told Education Week that “I think many of us would say maybe you don’t need to be accountable to the Secretary of Education….  Maybe you oughta be accountable to the local community, to parents” school boards, and states. Perhaps the Republicans in the House are waiting for the implosion Mr. Shumway predicted – if so, they are playing into the hands of the powerful unions. For better or worse, unions are at their most powerful at the state and local levels, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana notwithstanding.

The immediate  danger is that the new coalition might wound two of our more fearless reformers: Duncan and his boss.   Mike Petrilli urged the Secretary of Education not to be tone-deaf to the politics of ESEA reauthorization and Rick Hess says Duncan’s waiver gambit achieved “new heights of hubris.”

My only hope is that we don’t let education policy get hijacked (with due deference here to vice-president Biden) by the same partisan bickering that flavored the debt-ceiling standoff a couple weeks ago.  Our education system lost its AAA rating several generations ago.

–Peter Meyer

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