A broad coalition of 38 civil rights, education reform and business groups sent House education chairman John Kline a scathing letter Wednesday, describing his No Child Left Behind legislation as potentially racist.
"It undermines the core American value of equal opportunity in education embodied in Brown v. Board of Education," the groups wrote.
Their letter calls Rep. Kline's bills a rollback of federal accountability, a return to an era that ignored achievement gaps. The bills would "thrust us back to an earlier time when states could choose to ignore disparities for children of color, low-income students, ELLs [English language learners], and students with disabilities. The results, for these groups of students and for our nation as a whole, were devastating."
The 38 groups were organized by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. They include the American Association of People with Disabilities, the American Civil Liberties Union, Democrats for Education Reform, the Education Trust, the NAACP, Stand for Children, The New Teacher Project, the U.S. Chamber of Congress (which now employs George W. Bush's secretary of education, Margaret Spelling), and the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teachers union.
The No Child Left Behind Act, which reauthorized the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, mandates the regular testing of students in math, reading and science. These test results have become a key lever in an accountability system that divides schools into those that are making "adequate yearly progress" and those that aren't. Poor rankings lead to increasingly stiff federal sanctions for schools, including mandatory setting aside of No Child Left Behind money for tutoring and permission for students to transfer to nonfailing schools. By 2014, the law requires 100 percent of public schools to reach student proficiency in math and reading.
Kline's draft legislation, released in late December, would severely minimize these federal sanctions and give states flexibility in distributing federal funds. Under his proposed Student Success Act, only schools that ranked in the lowest 5 percent would be held accountable under federal law; school districts could devise their own turnaround plans for those schools. Also, states would no longer need to test students in science and would have more say over how they spent federal money. Kline's proposed Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act would mandate teacher evaluations based on student test scores, increase school options for parents and eliminate several federal education programs.
The release of the draft legislation marked the first tangible move that Kline (R-Minn.) had made since Republicans said earlier in December that they would take action on their own following the flame-out of bipartisan talks. Just hours after Kline released his bills, Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the education committee and Kline's former No Child Left Behind negotiation partner, issued a scathing statement condemning the measures. On Wednesday, Miller's staff email-blasted the coalition memo.
The rollback of federal accountability -- and corresponding return to local control -- worries the groups. They wrote, "The students we represent cannot withstand the risk of Congress allowing states to return to old habits -- aiming low and abandoning children deemed too difficult or inconsequential to educate. The draft, as written, would invite such a result."
"This draft bill also would allow federal dollars to flow but require virtually nothing in return," they note.
Kline's Education and the Workforce Committee has spent the week firing off partisan missives before and after Tuesday's State of the Union address. The letter put him on the defensive.
"The Student Success Act opens doors for superintendents, teachers, principals, and other education leaders to implement innovative approaches to meet the needs of individual student populations. In no way does the proposal allow states and school districts to shirk the fundamental responsibility of helping every child succeed in the classroom," Kline said in a statement released to The Huffington Post. "I am disappointed critics have chosen to disregard this responsible proposal and vilify the motives of state and local leaders -- leaders who have been clamoring for exactly the kind of flexibility and opportunity provided in the Student Success Act."
A coalition comprising many of the same groups -- but not the American Federation of Teachers -- made similar complaints about the Harkin-Enzi bill that actually made it through the Senate education committee last fall. Committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has signaled that he won't ask for the bill to be brought to the Senate floor until a bipartisan education bill emerges from the House -- and Kline's legislation isn't it.