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Avoiding a legal pileup: The Education Empowerment Act and the reauthorization of NCLB

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Picture yourself walking into a huge, noisy factory that makes education. We won’t stop right now to talk about the quality of the product. Instead, we’ll just take in, for a moment, the commotion, the people racing around, the machines rising and falling and clanking and crashing. We’ll call this factory the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Now, picture Congress coming along and making changes to the factory. That process, which is called “reauthorization,” is underway now. In fact, if you have opinions on how NCLB (now more often referred to as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA) should be changed as part of the reauthorization process, Congress would like to hear from you by March 26th.

I don’t know what the new factory that Congress creates will look like, but let’s imagine that the conveyor belts that previously ran from left to right will now go up and down, and perhaps run more smoothly. The large red machines that filled the old factory will be replaced by smaller, more efficient blue ones. The computers will be reprogrammed, and there will be a new green roof and some solar panels. We’ll still be making education, but we’ll be doing it differently.

Still with me? Now, picture this. Without stopping what’s going on in the new factory, some folks from the Pennsylvania General Assembly decide to stuff the entire old factory – no longer called NCLB, but renamed the Pennsylvania Education Empowerment Act of 2010 – inside the new one and turn it on at the same time.

Immediately, the old conveyor belts get tangled in the new ones. The big red machines, which were supposed to have been removed, grind up the new green roof. Small children, who were supposed to be coming out educated, lie dazed on the floor, trying to avoid the splinters from the solar panels, which are being flung around by the new blue machines (which are getting their instructions from the old computers). And a flock of school superintendents, CEO’s, principals and teachers – who are used to having the signals changed on them constantly, but could never have imagined this – are running for cover.

You can’t have two big, complicated factories trying to make the same thing, in different ways, in one space – not, at least, without hazard to life and limb. But that’s exactly what we’ll have, it seems to me, if Senate Bill 1192, proposed by Senators Piccola, Dinniman, and others, is enacted this year. This bill would reauthorize – while drastically expanding, along the lines of the existing requirements of NCLB – our state’s Education Empowerment Act, which is set to expire this June.

And there’s the potential for chaos.

Without going into detail about the existing Education Empowerment Act, I’ll just say that while it has its problems, its footprint is considerably smaller than, and not all that much in conflict with, NCLB. By contrast, SB 1192 is a very complex and ambitious statute that would enshrine in state law many of NCLB’s terms and concepts, as well as NCLB’s elaborate machinery for “corrective action,” “restructuring,” and other remedial measures – just as Congress undertakes to make changes in that law.

Indeed, SB 1192 would go beyond NCLB in some ways, by tilting more heavily toward privatization, charterization, and closure of schools; placing more power to determine the fate of individual schools, as well as districts, in the hands of state government; and writing parents and students pretty much out of the school-improvement equation. You can read my colleague Baruch Kintisch’s analysis of SB 1192 for more detail.

You may or may not feel that SB 1192 is all bad (I personally disagree with some of its approaches, just as I did when they first appeared in NCLB). My point here is simply that it makes little sense to adopt SB 1192 before we know where Congress decides to go with the federal reauthorization, because that will force our teachers, students and administrators to dance to too many different drummers. (I should have started with drummers instead of factories, but it’s too late now.)

One detail. SB 1192, if enacted, may not cover Philadelphia – it’s unclear. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the bill; after all, we’re part of a Commonwealth. Besides, what goes around to other districts often comes around, sometimes under another name, to Philly too.

Given all this, I think the Empowerment Act should simply be extended as is for a year – rather than pumped up into a big new “state NCLB” just as NCLB itself may be undergoing significant change. If you agree, you may want to talk with folks in the General Assembly, including the two Philadelphia Senators whose names are on the bill – Sens. Leanna Washington and Anthony H. Williams.

When you contact them, thank them for being concerned about improving our schools. But tell them that a step-by-step approach, in which we wait to see how the federal law is modernized and then see what changes we need at the state level (maybe we won’t even need an Education Empowerment Act!), makes more sense. And tell them that such an approach would also be a lot kinder to the living things – teachers, children, administrators, and others – who inhabit the legal factories that we create.