It has already taken on the mantle of one of the big debates of this Congress. The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – the law formerly known as NCLB – is being fast-tracked by committees in both the Senate and the House. On Wednesday, the House marked up H.R.5, The Student Success Act, and, while nobody should be under the illusion that this process will be concluded rapidly (whatever they say on the Hill), the debate has already laid bare some important contours that have to be addressed.

Over the past weeks the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions has conducted no less than three hearings on reauthorization. Importantly, the hearings – designed to cover topics ranging from innovation to teacher evaluation – consistently veered back to the central topics of assessments, accountability and federal government control and oversight. In its coverage of the hearings, some of the media has oversimplified the issue – with Democrats, predictably, painted on one side in the role of big Government intervention, and Republicans on the other defending against federal overreach.


Sadly lost is the discussion of how best to defend the law’s underlying intent: to help children who have been – and still are – let down by American education. These typically low income, minority students are stuck in a system that does not serve them well.

Also lost in the debate about fixing NCLB is a clear-sighted look at what is working in the law.  It’s not so much broken, but rather needs to be updated (as any law should be after 14 years!). The premise behind it – that all children can learn and should have access to high quality education – rings as true today as it did in 2001 as do some of its major tenets, like annual assessment, disaggregated data and accountability. With those tenets in place (though the waivers undid some of them), we now have a foundation from which to build and provide opportunity for innovation.

We can likely all agree with Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrAs Trump downplayed the virus publicly, memo based on private briefings sparked stock sell-offs: NYT Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Bipartisan representatives demand answers on expired surveillance programs MORE (R-N.C.) when he ties innovation, accountability, higher standards and appropriate federal oversight together in saying that, “Funding needs to come with … flexibility. We need to decrease the burden of proof on the district’s part by implementing these innovative programs. We need to be most concerned with outcome.”

That’s a neat, encompassing and probably accurate way to look at it, underpinned by what is common ground on both sides of the aisle – the understanding that NCLB needs to be reexamined. With Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOvernight Health Care: Trump takes criticism of Fauci to a new level | GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci | Birx confronted Pence about Atlas GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci amid Trump criticism Baldwin calls for Senate hearing on CDC response to meatpacking plant coronavirus outbreak MORE (R-Tenn.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care: Trump takes criticism of Fauci to a new level | GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci | Birx confronted Pence about Atlas Government watchdog to investigate allegations of Trump interference at CDC, FDA Baldwin calls for Senate hearing on CDC response to meatpacking plant coronavirus outbreak MORE (D-Wash.) indicating their intention to draft a bipartisan bill for markup, both parties in the Senate need to come together to support the chair and ranking member to do just that.

As a threshold matter, we all need to ensure that appropriate ideas are considered — regardless of political lines — and that schools, districts, and states have the flexibility they need to address the specifics of their unique students. And in order to do that, we need to empower states, through policy, to implement ESEA as they see fit. The federal government must collect and make publicly available the information states report to show what the results of those efforts are. Further, parents should have access to this information to be able to choose the right fit for their child—that is not, nor should it ever be, the responsibility of the U.S. government.

But detail and nuance is critical here. It’s not enough to say the law should enable and empower the federal government to assess and report while setting free the states and their schools to determine the rest. That may sound right, but it does not advance the fix to this law. What’s needed is a clearly determined annual assessment and measurement, along with transparency and public reporting, to ensure that meaningful progress remains non-negotiable. States must put in place concrete accountability metrics, and that means setting out real consequences for failure and real rewards or incentives for success.

The next couple of weeks of this debate will be telling, likely exposing the real intentions that both political parties harbor in this debate. All have laid out their “policy stalls” – we just need to see whether they will stand behind them. This law serves one, simple, undeniably bipartisan purpose: to help our children succeed. Common ground must be found, but the results must be real.

Halaska was assistant secretary of Education under President George W. Bush and is the founder of HCM Strategists. Snyder is senior associate at HCM Strategists.