The House passage this past week of the Every Student Succeeds Act (a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind legislation) may represent a sea change in the political landscape of education policy both at the national and state levels.
According to conservative critics, it falls short in three key priorities, in that it doesn't make funds for disadvantaged students portable by state; it doesn't allow for states to completely opt out of federal programs, and it doesn't cut programs and spending that may have become bloated over many years.
It has received bipartisan support, however, for a number of reasons: it allows states to set their own academic standards relative to reading and math; it replaces the federal "adequate yearly progress" accountability system with state-designed accountability systems; it ends federal mandates for highly qualified teachers and teacher evaluations; it limits the federal secretary's authority to prescribe interventions and school improvement strategies, and it consolidates dozens of individual federal programs into a single block grant for education.
While this legislation dramatically changes national education policy and administration, it suggests a potentially bigger change in the legislative environment in Washington.
In recent years the political climate in Washington has trended toward an “all or nothing” environment where incremental and bipartisan improvements to legislation are almost impossible. In this environment, effective leadership is characterized by standing firm on principle without compromise because any compromise would result in zero improvement or progress. In this political environment the Utah congressional delegation has admirably stood in uncompromising defense of principle when it comes to education and health care legislation in particular. This may be the correct leadership strategy in an all-or-nothing political environment. However, the ESSA legislation suggests that the environment is changing in ways that may necessitate a new leadership approach by the Utah delegation so it may continue to be effective.
While all eyes seem to be focused on the presidential campaigns, one of the most significant changes in national governance in recent years likely occurred with the recent election of Paul Ryan as speaker of the House. Underlying the stipulations he imposed on his election as speaker is a dramatic change in political climate. In essence his agenda is to move from an all-or-nothing model to an incremental-collaborative, or best practices, model. The ESSA legislation is one of the first major pieces of legislation that has come to the floor of the House since Ryan took over the gavel, and it suggests the climate is changing. It represents a remarkable incremental improvement to the No Child Left Behind legislation, which has had unintended but significantly negative consequences for education across the country.
The entire Utah House delegation joined a surprisingly small group that voted in opposition to this legislation, which otherwise had very broad bipartisan support (73 percent of Republicans and 99 percent of Democrats voted in favor).
While standing uncompromisingly firm works well in an all-or-nothing legislative environment, this approach can potentially lead to irrelevance in an incremental-collaborative environment. Effective political leadership in an incremental-collaborative environment requires collaboration, negotiation and compromise. If Ryan is successful in establishing a new legislative environment in Washington, the Utah House delegation runs the risk of becoming less effective if its methods do not adapt to the new environment.
On the other hand, the delegation has the natural advantage of coming from Utah, a state with a growing reputation as a center of collaboration, negotiation and compromise on important and difficult issues. Engaging an incremental-collaborative legislative environment opens a world of leadership possibilities for legislators to exert a positive influence on vital issues that have proven intransigent in recent years. However, to embrace this opportunity, the Utah House delegation may have to reconsider its methods.
We strongly support the Every Student Succeeds Act, which represents one of the first major pieces of legislation to come before Congress in what might become characterized as the post-all-or-nothing world. We appreciate the principled leadership that the Utah House delegation has provided in the past, but we encourage the delegation to adapt its political leadership to the incremental-collaborative environment that has the potential of breaking the policy logjam in Washington.