Obama’s No Child Left Behind: New Name, Same Sketchy Policies

By Julianne Hing Mar 16, 2010

This past Saturday the Obama administration released its plan for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, which is hereafter to be referred to by its new–well, make that old–name as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. ESEA was originally passed by Lyndon Johnson in 1965 and has had several face lifts over the years till it became what we know it as today. But the Obama administration is giving up the No Child Left Behind moniker, ostensibly to distance itself from the Bush version of the law. If only education reform were as simple as giving up a tainted name. This is what we know right now: the new ESEA proposal is a 41-page blueprint. Much of it is remarkably uncontroversial: Obama wants new academic standards that are more comprehensive. The goal is to have all high school students college-ready by 2020. The new plan would take students’ rate of academic growth and improvement into consideration when measuring school achievement, regardless of the level the student started at. The state will stop offering vouchers to parents to send their children to private schools if their local public school is failing. Hard to argue over, no? While the new ESEA is still just a proposal, education advocates are voicing concern over already-implemented initiatives that really show Obama’s ideological stance on ed policy and how ESEA will shake out for communities of color. Race to The Top, a national competition for $4.35 billion worth of federal money dangles up to $700 million in front of states that adopt Secretary of Eduation Arne Duncan’s dramatic tactics for dealing with underperforming schools. These reforms include drastic measures like closing and reopening schools as charter schools, firing all and rehiring no more than half of a school’s teaching staff, or shutting down schools altogether and sending students to better-performing schools in the district. They certainly sound impressive on paper, but in implementation, it’s students of color and students from low-income families that are often left out in the cold. "People can look to Race to the Top for the foundation of [the Obama administration’s] policies," said Jack Loveridge, a policy analyst with Justice Matters, a racial justice think tank that works on education policy. Much of a state’s eligibility for Race to the Top money depends on its willingness to let its public schools be taken over by charter schools. And despite some very public wins recently, the jury is still out (or firmly against charter schools) when it comes to assessing their ability to adequately and fully serve the communities of color and those most in need. "Of all the public schools in the country, only 3 percent have been converted to charter schools," Loveridge said. "When schools are shut down, many of the students that don’t make it into the charter school are moved to the surrounding public schools, which further overloads those schools and makes them comparatively lower performing." It ends up being a downward spiral. When overburdened and underfunded public schools struggle to compete against exclusive charter schools, they become vulnerable to being shut down. "We’re still dealing with the other 97 percent of schools," said Loveridge. So, there isn’t a whole lot to get angry about yet when it comes to the new No Child Left Behind, because most education advocates have already been fighting Arne Duncan’s brand of education reform for a while now. photo credit: Pete Souza, White House flickr