Motivated by the negative effects of No Child Left Behind in Washington, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray worked for almost a year to help craft a bipartisan education bill.

Share story

As President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law Thursday, Washington public-education leaders combed through the 1,061-page document to see what the new law might mean here — the state that had to labor under the requirements of No Child Left Behind longer than most others.

Obama called the bill’s passage a “Christmas miracle.” U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who worked for almost a year to rewrite the law, said Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will allow districts to return to the promise of an equal education for “so many people.”

Educators and other officials in the state cheered the rewrite, too, but their praise was more muted, with some pointing out that the bill is a compromise.

“I think it’s a very positive day for education,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said. “Nobody will say it is perfect, but that is democracy.”

Key changes to the law include returning power to states to determine how to use state testing in evaluating schools. The law allows, but doesn’t require, states to use the new Common Core learning standards for reading and math, and stresses that test scores should be just one of many indicators of success. The education law also includes dedicated funding for early education for the first time, and increases funding for programs serving homeless youth, military-connected children and students in tribal schools.

Parents at nearly nine out of ten state schools will first notice one difference: Come September, they won’t receive a letter that their child’s school is failing, one of the law’s requirements if a school didn’t reach federal test-score targets. (By 2014, schools were expected to have all — or nearly all — students pass state reading and math exams.)

Districts where schools were deemed failing also will no longer have to set aside money to pay for tutoring or transfers to better-performing schools.

“Knowing that my teachers and students aren’t going to be judged by one assessment is an overwhelming feeling,” said Angela Sheffey Bogan, principal of Seattle’s Dearborn Park International Elementary School, which was labeled as a failing school.

Congressional compromise

In 2012, Washington was one of more than 30 states to receive a waiver from many of the No Child Left Behind requirements, after the law had expired, but Congress hadn’t yet passed anything to take its place.

Then last year, Washington became the first state to lose its waiver, because lawmakers here refused to agree to one of the waiver requirements set by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: requiring districts to use student scores on statewide tests as part of teachers’ job evaluations.

With the loss of the waiver, school districts with one or more “needs improvement” schools again had to set aside money to pay for private tutoring for students at those schools, or bus costs for those who wanted to transfer.

Murray said the fallout from the loss of the waiver motivated her to rewrite the No Child law.

“Parents were just so stressed about all the high-stakes testing, and there were teachers who talked to me in tears,” she said. “I knew it (No Child Left Behind) had to be fixed.”

As a minority in a divided Congress, Murray knew she would need a Republican partner, and joined forces with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, the son of a kindergarten teacher and principal. Alexander, who also had served as U.S. Secretary of Education from 1991-1993, is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Murray is the committee’s ranking Democrat.

She realized that the process wouldn’t be easy.

“I knew we would disagree on a lot of policy, but we agreed the law was broken,” Murray said. “We had many times when we looked at each other and said, ‘we can’t do this.’ And then one would say ‘no, we have to do this,’ and we would go back to work in our offices.”

It was the type of compromise that has become rare in a today’s political landscape, one that some officials weren’t sure would go through.

“If you had asked me (if it would pass) in June, I would have said no, it doesn’t have a chance,” Dorn said. “You’ll have to wait until the presidential election, because the Republicans don’t want to give Obama a win, and the Democrats don’t want to give Republicans in a win in a majority-Republican Congress.”

One factor that helped: Most everyone agreed that No Child was failing.

“The law was politically dead,” said Chris Vance, a political consultant and former state Republican Party chair who is running against Murray in 2016.

“If you were to have a debate tomorrow on Obamacare, there are people who are passionately for and against it. There were no defendants of No Child Left Behind left.”

Testing will continue

One of the criticisms of the No Child law was its emphasis on standardized testing, which some said detracted from learning, as teachers “taught to the test.”

But while the new law will affect how test scores are used, students still will be required to take the same number of tests — reading and math exams each year from grades 3-8 and once in high school.

The Washington Education Association, the union representing more than 85,000 teachers and other school employees, praised the new law, saying the previous one placed inappropriate focus on the tests.

“The tests are still required, but it de-links the tests from high-stakes decisions,” said spokesman Rich Wood. “It will continue to be our goal to reduce the amount of standardized testing, whether we are talking about this law or at the state level.”

For some the new law is still too test-centric. Instead of taking away the testing, it shifts the burden onto the states, said Anastasia Samuelsen, an organizer with Seattle Opt Out. She’s also the mother of a student at Garfield High School, where more than 100 students refused to take the new Common Core tests last year.

“The issues with high-stakes standardized testing that activists cite as fuel for the opt-out movement … have been preserved in the ESSA, with their emphasis on these tests,” she said.

Bogan, the Dearborn Park principal, said she and her teachers aren’t against testing, but oppose what they saw as the one-size-fits-all nature of the No Child law, saying it didn’t acknowledge the differing cultures and communities of each school.

“What we are against is being held to one standard, to one assessment,” she said. “I believe the new law will show all the unique things about our school, the things that we do to meet the needs of students. We’re trying to meet the needs of the whole child, not just paper and pencil.”