What the race for House speaker could mean for education

Chris Stewart | 10/30/2015, 2:53 p.m.
The recent decision by John Boehner, the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, to step down will have ...
Education

The recent decision by John Boehner, the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, to step down will have more consequences than one might think. Replacing Boehner is not just important to Republican lawmakers, who need a new leader, but will also affect how the laws that are passed turn out. One area that hasn’t gotten as much attention outside of the traditional education media bubble is education policy, despite the fact that Congress is considering changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, most recently known as No Child Left Behind. NCLB is a key federal education law that directs how we go about achieving access to quality educational opportunities for children. Given that Republicans control the House, they’ll have a lot of say in how any new iteration of the ESEA looks.

Earlier this year, the Congressional Black Caucus made a statement regarding just how important updates to No Child Left Behind would be. “Since 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has been an essential tool for promoting fair and equal access to quality public education and helping to reduce educational disparities between students of all backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, abilities and beliefs,” said Rep. G. K. Butterfield, Congressional Black Caucus chair. “Congress should honor the 50th anniversary of the ESEA by reauthorizing the law through new legislation that provides robust and consistent funding to schools, greater support for disadvantaged students and recognizes the historic federal role in education.”  

Civil rights groups recognize just how important any prospective changes to the ESEA are if the nation really wants “No Child Left Behind.” Earlier this month, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund was among the groups on Capitol Hill to debate reauthorization of the ESEA in Congress. As an organization, the LDF has long fought for equitable opportunities in education, and the group is now at the forefront of working to encourage lawmakers.

“It is critical to maintain the spirit and vision of the original ESEA as this important civil rights legislation is finalized,” said Janel George, senior education policy counsel at LDF.  “We must maintain a federal mechanism to hold states accountable for addressing inequities, especially those impacting sub-groups of students—including students of color, students with disabilities, English Learners and low-income students—to ensure that we close achievement gaps and improve high school graduation rates.”

Historically, Republicans have pushed against stringent federal requirements when it comes to what’s expected of school leaders. This resistance was most recently exemplified by the House of Representative’s passage of the Student Success Act (H.R. 5), which is the House’s proposed rewrite of ESEA. As drafted, the law was intended to lessen “the federal footprint and restore local control while empowering parents and education leaders to hold schools accountable for effectively teaching students.”

Therein lies the conflict: Civil rights groups want strong federal oversight that demands accountability in measuring the performance and success of the nation’s public schools, while Republican lawmakers want state and local leaders holding themselves accountable, which was essentially the law of the land before NCLB and resulted in huge achievement gaps for Black and Latino students.

So what could this self-monitoring mean for students of color and students from low-income neighborhoods? Will there be ways to ensure that their schools have the resources they need to offer the best possible education that allows students to be prepared to go on to college and compete in the world? How do you make sure that groups who have historically not been best served by the education system end up getting the education they deserve?

Therefore, where whoever ultimately assumes the speaker’s gavel stands on education becomes that much more important. As the person who helps direct and manage the legislative priorities of the majority party, they drive decision-making and the process of passing laws. Boehner voted in favor of the Student Success Act. In voting as he did, he made a statement about where he stood on education reform, that is, against accountability that protects students who need it the most.

Chris Stewart is director of outreach and external affairs of Education Post, a nonpartisan communications organization dedicated to building support for student-focused improvements in public education from preschool to high school graduation.