Commentary: NJEA and Heritage Foundation: Perfect Together

 (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Almost everyone is finding something to like in the new U.S. Senate bill that would replace No Child Left Behind, titled the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015. (Here’s a summary.) Conservatives, Tea Partiers, and local control devotees coo at the diminution of federal oversight while liberals and progressives approve of the bill’s preservation of disaggregated data, which allows schools and states to spotlight the academic growth of children in poverty and those with disabilities. 

There’s a chief dissenter, however, among the celebrants. Teacher union leaders, especially, those from the National Education Association (NJEA’s parent) despise the bill’s retention of annual standardized tests in third to eighth grade and once in high schools. NEA has fought stridently (AFT more softly)  for “grade span testing” — once in elementary school, once in middle school, once in high school — and, judging by the draft bill, the country’s largest teacher labor union appears to have lost this battle.

But union leaders appear to believe that this is the hill to die on. In doing so, NEA pits itself and its affiliates squarely against prominent civil rights groups that maintain, as they did in a letter issued Tuesday, that annual standardized testing provides “invaluable information to parents, communities, educators, advocates, and policymakers to help ensure all students an equitable and excellent education.” NEA’s opposition is a dangerous position for a labor group that cultivated its power and probity by advocating for principles of fairness. 

The U.S. Congress has been trying to rewrite No Child Left Behind for years. The bill actually dates back to 1965, originating under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration as part of a broader effort to assuage the burdens of poverty and inequality. After several permutations, the bill became No Child Left Behind during Pres. George W. Bush’s administration; it was that particular version that included the fantastically aspirational goal that every child in America would attain proficiency in math and language arts by 2014.  Nice thought, given the reality that 60 percent of students who enroll in community colleges require remedial coursework. Time for a rewrite.

Actually, the rewrite was supposed to happen in 2007 but no proposal has made it past the cutting-room floor. This 600-page proposal is bipartisan, crafted by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Texas)  and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and it’s the first one with a breath of headwind. In a nutshell, it eliminates Adequate Yearly Progress and the attached NCLB sanctions (the bane of school districts everywhere); requires states to have their own accountability systems; lets states decide whether or not to link teacher evaluations to student growth; eliminates Race to the Top; kills the idea of Title I portability (allowing poor students’ federal aid to follow them to the school of their choice); and provides some charter school incentives..

In other words, it’s a compromise. Heck, even Diane Ravitch says, “this is a far better bill than I had hoped or feared.”

But not for NEA and its affiliated organizations.  In fact, the only other group to react so negatively to the proposed bill, which started its “mark-up” session on Tuesday, is the Heritage Foundation, America’s ultra-conservative bastion that declared earlier this year that “Congress should empower states to completely opt out of the programs that fall under NCLB, either through stand-alone proposals…or through similar opt-out language included in any ESEA reauthorization”

Sound familiar? In New Jersey our NEA affiliate NJEA is all about opt-out, mirroring its mother ship’s stance on annual standardized testing, despite the fact that the practice protects poor children and those with disabilities from getting lost in aggregated averages. The union has spent millions of dollars in members’ dues on big-time TV ad buys that urge parents to boycott annual standardized PARCC tests, hosts a website devoted to the tests’ demise, and helped write a corresponding “opt-out” bill which passed unanimously in the State Assembly. NJEA and the Heritage Foundation: perfect together.

This is a parlous position for a labor union, especially one that promotes principles of educational equity and access. And its stance on annual standardized testing is not an aberration but a reactionary trend. Witness the charter moratorium bill which, like the opt-out bill, was sponsored by Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), NJEA’s pet lawmaker. While NJEA once proffered reasonable positions on charter schools, it’s now promoting an abrupt halt to any expansion, despite 20,000 children, mostly poor, who sit on charter school waiting lists. 

NEA President Lily Eskelson Garcia told the Washington Post, “this [draft bill] is not an endgame, this is the beginning of the fight,” she said. “Senators Patty Murray and Alexander really have tried very hard to get this to a better place, and it’s not there yet…we want them to fix some of the things that are egregiously wrong.”

NEA, and NJEA as well, would serve their members more productively by staying true to union roots of equity and fairness, maintaining ties with civil rights leaders, and supporting the Every Child Achieves Act. Annual standardized testing is here to stay. Accept it and move on.

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Laura Waters is vice president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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