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Tom on Point: A critical assist

Thomas J. Gentzel

At least two important developments helped to pave the way for enactment of the long-overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in late 2015. Most widely reported was the strong bipartisan support for the measure as it cleared final hurdles in Congress. That across-the-aisle cooperation was evident in the joint House-Senate conference committee, which efficiently dispatched significant differences in the separate ESEA bills that each chamber previously had passed.

The committee voted 39 to 1 to send the compromise bill back to both ends of the Capitol for final approval. That proved to be a seamless exercise, with the House voting 359 to 64, and the Senate following suit 85 to 12, to send the historic legislation on to President Obama for his signature. In an era of contentious partisanship, these actions are encouraging, indeed.

The other welcome development was an elevation of the school board voice in the deliberations about this critical federal law. NSBA was successful in securing amendments to both the House and Senate ESEA bills that strengthen the role of school boards. Our lobbyists worked diligently behind the scenes to secure support from lawmakers. They did an amazing job, and were helped greatly by a group of senators and representatives and their staffs who have a special understanding of those issues.

The former school board members now serving in the Congress proved to be a critical asset in ensuring that local governance was strengthened in the final bill. Special credit goes to Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), a past president of the Nebraska Association of School Boards, who sponsored our proposal in the Senate with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who joined her as original co-sponsors.

Credit goes as well to the six former school board members who served on the conference committee that drafted the final bill with the NSBA language intact. They are: Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), and Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.).

Congressional leaders, especially those with prior local school board experience, took full advantage of being in a position to help usher in an exciting new era in federal education policy. Through their efforts and with the support of others, school boards have been given more authority. Federal overreach has been significantly curtailed.

The latest iteration of ESEA, known officially as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is not perfect. No legislation ever is. However, it addresses so many of NSBA’s objectives, such as requiring the U.S. Department of Education to collaborate with local school leaders and not simply impose its will on them, eliminating the existing one-size-fits-all approach to school accountability, providing more state and local opportunity to shape workable school improvement plans, and ensuring state control over academic standards, while excluding “portability” (i.e., vouchers).

These features all make the new ESSA a vast improvement over current law. School boards have been advocating for these changes for years and now have been presented with a great opportunity to assert meaningful local leadership in public education. To help with that, NSBA will provide guidance and training for school boards concerning this new law in which we have been so deeply involved.

Enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act stands as a signature achievement. It makes an important point: Those who have sat at a school board table and addressed real-world issues are especially well qualified to shape rational, workable federal education policy. To those former school board members in the Congress who stepped up to make that happen in this case, we say “thank you” for a job well done.


Tom GentzelThomas J. Gentzel (tgentzel@nsba.org) is the Executive Director of NSBA. Follow Gentzel on Twitter @Tom_NSBA

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