Congress Continues to Fail Students in Education Reform Efforts

The south side of the U.S. Capitol has been the site of an ill-conceived education reform bill recently passed out of the House of Representatives. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Once again our national education policymaking has proven to be reckless and broken, as schools and districts are confused about how to mesh with federal goals. In a 100 percent partisan vote by the U.S. House of Representatives last Friday, 221-207, Republican lawmakers approved HR 5, the “Student Success Act,” which hands success measures for student growth back to districts and states.

Our national effort to improve public education began in 1965 with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was reauthorized in 2002 with the heavy federal provisions of testing and accountability with No Child Left Behind. NCLB was scheduled to sunset in 2007 and be replaced with new legislation that improves upon the existing law.

But due to partisan disagreements, it has not happened six years running. I wonder whether it will happen at all in President Obama’s second term. I am taking odds that education reform—like immigration reform, gun control reform and IRS reform—will remain stuck in partisan gridlock. The status quo of NCLB will continue to be law for the foreseeable future through the Dept. of Education waiver program.

In order to move on, we must deal with the facts of what works to increase performance for all students. In the 2016 presidential campaign, we need a national dialogue on the quality of our public schools. This dialogue must result in bringing forward the best practices for early childhood learning and making the efficacy of teacher and school leadership a priority.

Trying to make sense of where we are today is perilous. HR 5 dramatically severs strong federal mandates for school and district accountability. Even its Republican sponsor and chair of the House Education Committee, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), threw in the towel because of the provision that requires states and districts to develop teacher evaluation systems based on student performance.

On the Senate side it gets even more muddled. U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (Dem-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Education Committee, reauthorized its own version of ESEA with only support from committee Democrats. In Harkin’s version, states are required to establish goals with high expectations for student outcomes within all subgroups and tie teacher evaluations into student performance.

Harkin hopes to get his bill to the Senate floor for debate sometime this year. His bill is more aligned to the tenets of what President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan would like to see in the reauthorization language.

HR 5 gives more control over results to the local administrators and school boards, while the Senate version—yet to receive full floor debate—requires federal controls over school districts and boards for increased student outcomes. 

Public education will not improve without a federal role to mandate increased student performance. The House’s measure significantly guts key provisions of the Bush-Kennedy compromise on NCLB, allowing states and districts autonomy to implement changes as they see fit. Also significant, the bill weakens requirements for federal block grants.

Politics can produce strange bedfellows, but the list of supporters for HR 5 and those against it confounds more than usual. In support: The American Association of School Administrators, The National School Boards Association, Americans for Tax Reform, The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Those opposed: The National Education Association, The American Federation of Teachers, The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, The Business Roundtable, The Education Trust, The National Council of La Raza, Democrats for School Reform and the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

America’s children deserve better leadership from the adults entrusted to govern. We need an education-centric president in 2016 to emerge. Investment at home must begin with a world-class public school system.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. The House of Representatives is the last bastion of common sense in the federal government. Tea party members rightly recognize that organizations are more effective when responsible for and accountable for their own performance. They know that meddling from Washington DC has only screwed up local school districts across the land over the past several decades and they’d like it to stop.
    Those interested in REAL education reform should be supportive of this positive, innovative, progressive step.
    Those more concerned with expanding a vast, wasteful, destructive bureaucracy will of course, reject it.

    • I agree with the comments for the idea of charter school like academies. Just recently, a first of its kind education commission was established in Santa Clara County; The Blue Ribbon Commission on Public Education of Silicon Valley. One of their key objectives being kicked around is how to support and encourage charter like academies while at the same time keeping traditional public schools intact.

      I have two children in public schools so I do know for a fact that some school districts have already adopted pieces of successful charter school models. As for their success, it’s still too early to tell. However, one very popular and productive tool not yet replicated in failing public schools are the highly successful charter school parent involvement policies. Aside from teachers being the most important factor in a child’s life, research indicates its imperative parent involvement policy become a primary focal point in all districts. As one commenter alluded to, I hope our educators and school board members see some of the successful charter school models as an opportunity to integrate their best practices into our failing public schools. 

      As for DiSalvo, turn the finger of blame the other direction because the last time I checked, school boards are responsible for putting in place the proper keystones for students to learn and achieve at the highest level possible.  Therefore, your primary agenda is raising student achievement and involving the community in the attainment of that goal. You should be embarrassed by your very own comment, “America’s children deserve better leadership from the adults entrusted to govern.”

  2. > In the 2016 presidential campaign, we need a national dialogue on the quality of our public schools.

    No need to wait until 2016.

    We’ve already had the dialogue and there is a consensus:

    “Public schools suck”.

    What else is there to say.

    Nothing will change until we change the people in charge, and the new people in charge start slaughtering the education sacred cows.

    Not likely to happen on planet Obama-Hillary-Nancy Pelosi-Harry Reid.

    Move on.  Nothing more to see.

  3. Unfortunately, public education as structured now is on its last legs.  In every comparison, it is shown to be inferior to charter schools, private schools, and home schooling…as preparation for living a full, successful, vibrant life of continuous learning.

    The latest group to be targeted as the ones to blame are the people in charge of training teachers in effective techniques.  The moving finger of blame is being shaken at you, Joseph Di Salvo, and it’s no good dodging around that analysis.  The finger had to land on some group, and it looks like you’re in that group.

    What we need is a new way to think about education without throwing out the entire public school concept, and I’d like to suggest the term, “charter-like public schools” which would challenge school sites to adopt best practices from the charter school models.

    Old cliches like “moving the deck chairs on the Titanic” don’t begin to do justice to the situation, we need to have the huge institutions themselves removed and go right to the school sites for reform and improvement with opportunities for genuine parental and public involvement.  It’s been a closed shop for way too long.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *