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Let’s say this: The revamp of the No Child Left Behind Act proposed by Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin and Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi isn’t all bad. After all, the bill proposes to make President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative a permanent element of federal education policy, bringing in the kind of competitive grant process that has forced states such as Tennessee and California to expand charter schools, use student test data in evaluating teacher performance, and enact other reforms. The plan also keeps two other Obama initiatives — the Promise Neighborhoods effort modeled off the efforts of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and the less-than-innovative I3 initiative — alive for the next five years.

The Harkin-Enzi plan also brings to the table the “mutual consent” concept of teacher transfers pioneered in New York City that allows principals to control selection of their teaching staffs and end the penchant for laggard long-tenured teachers to use seniority-bumping rules to get classroom assignments and force out younger, often more-talented colleagues. And it requires states to use three years of student achievement data in looking at achievement gaps throughout their schools, which makes sense.

All that said, the Harkin-Enzi plan is still four steps back for two steps forward.

As Dropout Nation pointed out yesterday in its criticism of the No Child proposed by Enzi’s colleague, Lamar Alexander (and its criticism of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s No Child waiver plan), gutting No Child’s accountability measures (and limiting what’s left of accountability to just the nation’s 5,000 failure mills and the 5 percent of schools with the widest racial- and socioeconomic-based achievement gaps) will do little more than allow school districts — especially those in suburbia — to ignore their obligations to provide high-quality instruction and curricula to poor and minority children. The fact that the proposal is rather toothless in requiring states to adopt  “college and career-ready” curricula  — especially since they don’t have to adopt Common Core standards — means that the Harkin-Enzi plan guts accountability in exchange for nothing. And once again, the crisis of educational failure among young men of all racial and economic backgrounds has been ignored altogether.

Simply calling this plan a step back is an understatement. No Child has been the single-biggest advance in education policy, both at the federal level and among states and local governments, since the Defense Education Act of 1958. For the first time in the history of American public education, schools were forced to set clear goals for improving student achievement in reading and mathematics; it finally focused attention on using data in measuring teacher quality; it made it clear to suburban districts that they could no longer continue to commit educational malpractice against poor and minority children; and it focused American public education on achieving measurable results instead of damning kids to low expectations.

Through the Adequate Yearly Progress accountability measures, the low quality of education across the nation’s public schools — including urban districts and in suburbia — was exposed while it gave researchers the impetus to look at the nation’s high school graduation rates (and present in clear, stark terms the high school dropout crisis). Without No Child, there is no Race to the Top, no teacher quality reform movement, no discussion about value-added assessment and no real national focus on stemming achievement gaps. And without No Child, the conditions for expanding school choice and Parent Power — including the passage of Parent Trigger laws in three states in the past two years, and the passage of voucher and tax credit measures in 13 more this year alone — would be less ideal than they are now.

The Harkin-Enzi plan basically is hope against hope: That reform-minded governors can slug it out against teachers’ unions and other education traditionalists without any tools from the federal level to help them out. This ignores the previous four decades of the history of American public education before 2001, when reforms were mostly limited to states such as Texas and often nibbles on the edges. At a time when systemic reform is needed more than ever and the federal role is critical to the effort, what Harkin and Enzi offer is rather weak.

To say that the Harkin-Enzi plan is, along with the Alexander plan and the Obama administration’s waiver effort, is a white flag on strong vigorous school reform efforts from the federal level is just being kind. It’s great for education traditionalists, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, who want to preserve their declining influence. It works well for suburban districts that don’t want to be accountable even to middle-class black and Latino families that have found that those schools are poorly serving their kids. But it does little for children, no matter who they are or where they live. It’s hardly worth the paper upon which it is written. The only good news is that the objections of congressional Republicans who control the lower house may stop any reauthorization effort in its tracks.

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