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The Double Edged Sword of Deregulation: States Can Ignore Equity and Civil Rights with Impunity

March 10, 2017

To no one’s surprise, yesterday Congress passed a bill that will effectively eliminate the regulations that the Obama administration wrote as part of the implementation procedure for ESSA. NYTimers reporter Dana Goldstein summarized some of the elements of the legislation, focussing primarily on the issue of standardized testing:

It is customary for federal agencies to issue detailed regulations on how new laws should be put into effect, and Mr. Obama’s Department of Education did so in November. But some lawmakers from both parties saw the regulations as unusually aggressive and far-reaching, and said they could subvert ESSA’s intent of re-establishing local control over education and decreasing the emphasis on testing.

The Obama regulations pushed states to weight student achievement measures, such as test scores and graduation rates, more heavily than other factors in labeling schools as underperforming. The regulations also required schools to provide parents and the public with an annual report card detailing schoolwide student achievement data and other indicators of success.

Among the most contentious of the Obama rules was one that required schools to test at least 95 percent of their students.

“The regulations were an overreach,” said Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest, a group that fights standardized testing. But, he said, “the total repeal is also an overreach,” because it targets civil rights regulations as well as testing rules.

And therein lies the conundrum of standards and regulations: how can a government at any level, including the school board level, avoid imposing standards and regulations when housing patterns and the accompanying economic and educational well-being of children is inequitable. As Ms. Goldstein writes, there is a change in sentiment about the role of the federal government in the setting of standards and measurement of performance:

Beginning in the 1980s, moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans tended to agree that the federal government ought to hold local schools to tough standards, and monitor them closely to make sure they were shrinking achievement gaps between different groups of students. The ESSA repeal effort shows that center no longer holds. On the Senate floor Wednesday, Mr. Alexander said a regulatory repeal would “restore to states, to classroom teachers and to school boards decisions about what to do about the children.”

Giving states the authority over education sounds good… but history shows that when states are given that obligation racial and economic justice take a backseat and the education of ESL and handicapped students flags. The fact that 42 states have experienced lawsuits over funding equities should serve as sufficient evidence that some kind of federal oversight is needed and the relatively recent trend of resegregation of public schools should reinforce the need for some kind of federal intervention. But for now, economic and racial justice are taking a backseat. For the sake of poor, minority, ESL, and handicapped children, I hope the pendulum swings back with a vengeance.

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