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Sweeping education policy 'a Christmas miracle'

Oregon Rep. Bonamici present for signing of landmark Every Student Succeeds Act


SCREEN SHOT OF WHITEHOUSE.GOV VIDEO - Oregon Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (in red) stands behind President Barack Obama and Washington Senator Patty Murray stands to the right as he signs the Every Student Succeeds Act, legislation eight years overdue after No Child Left Behind expired in 2007. Oregon’s policymakers are celebrating the passage of a new law that puts an end to No Child Left Behind — a controversial Bush Administration education policy that put sanctions on schools that didn’t meet annual progress goals as measured through standardized tests.

Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon) was there for the signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act into law at the White House on Dec. 10. President Barack Obama said the bipartisan, bicameral bill with broad support in an increasingly divisive Congress was “a Christmas miracle.”

Bonamici, who was on the committee to reconcile the Senate bill (which passed in June) with the House bill passed Dec. 2, said Democrats and Republicans worked together because they had heard from school districts across the nation how broken No Child Left Behind was.

“It a great example of what happens when you have a lot of people committed to setting aside their differences and finding common ground,” Bonamici said.

Under the new law, states will have more latitude to determine the right fixes for struggling schools.

That has led some critics to worry about a return to the days of unaccountability and results in exchange for federal dollars.

Bonamici said she has heard the criticisms and will watch how the law is implemented through the U.S. Department of Education, but feels accountability was at the forefront of legislators’ minds.

“States will have to have accountability measures; it’s just that states will have more input into that,” she said. “But it’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all because that wasn’t working very well.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act, like its 2001 predecessor No Child Left Behind, is an amendment to a 1965 civil rights law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which aimed to ensure that all public school children have equal access to educational opportunities. No Child Left Behind expired in 2007 but Congress had been unable to reach a new agreement before now. Instead, the U.S. Department of Education had been granting individual states waivers on their plans for use of federal education dollars.

Local reaction

Portland Public Schools board member Julie Esparza Brown said the new federal legislation offers more opportunity to target struggling students than before.

“To me, the strength of ESSA is that there are no more excuses around issues of equity,” Brown said in an email. “... I think it says to states: ‘Do right by children and families.’ Returning oversight to the states may allow us to more effectively target the needs of our own students.”

Brown also said, however, that she wishes English language acquisition was more strongly tied to a school’s accountability plan. But she praised the law for allowing greater flexibility for funding teachers of English learning students, by combining it with funds earmarked for children in poverty.

Oregon’s senators also heralded the passage of the legislation.

“It’s an enormous relief for students, educators, and parents across Oregon that the deeply broken ‘No Child Left Behind’ law is finally being replaced,” said Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley in a statement. “No Child Left Behind left a lot of children behind. It focused too much on getting some children to meet testing goals while ignoring other children, as well as wiping out numerous core courses and electives that were not tested.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) pointed to particular language in the new law that takes aim at graduation rates. Oregon has, by one measure, the worst rate in the nation.

“Helping teenagers stay at it and get through to graduation day is a critical step on a path to greater success throughout their lives,” Wyden said in a statement. “This approach will help expand opportunity for students no matter where they live, how much their parents earn, or what obstacles they face.”

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