Disability advocates urge support for passage of NCLB rewrite

a group of young students crowd around a microscope
Every Student Succeeds Act

The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Every Student Succeeds Act on December 2, overhauling much of the long controversial No Child Left Behind Act and reducing the federal government’s role in monitoring state and local education efforts.

The Senate will take up the bill this week, where it will likely pass and be signed by President Obama before the end of the year.

A coalition of major disability rights groups, many long concerned that the rewrite would weaken accountability standards, provided lukewarm support for the bill.

“Throughout the year, the civil rights community has fought to make sure that the long-overdue reauthorization of this law would ensure that vulnerable children get the education they’re entitled to,” the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights wrote in a statement, signed by more than a dozen disability advocacy groups. “We believe the Every Student Succeeds Act is an improvement over the waivers and is a chance to move beyond the No Child Left Behind Act for the millions of students of color, students with disabilities, and English learner students we represent.”

The new 1,059-page bill retains much of the NCLB’s testing structure, specifically the requirement that all students take annual math and reading tests each year between third and eighth grade, and once more in high school.

However, the ESSA imposes significant limitations on the federal government’s ability to intervene when schools fail to demonstrate testing proficiency, except for schools in the bottom 5 percent in the state, where schools have fewer than two-thirds of students graduate, or where certain minority populations consistently fail to improve, according to the Washington Post.

These limitations were too much for some civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center, who publicly oppose the bill in its current form.

The ESSA also drops the NCLB’s requirement, widely criticized as overly stringent, that all students be 100 percent proficient in math and reading by 2014. During the past seven years, the Obama Administration granted waivers to nearly every state from this requirement, in exchange for a requirement that states adopt the Administration’s Common Core Standards, various teacher accountability measures and other requirements.

Of particular importance for disability rights advocates, the ESSA retains the NCLB’s reporting requirements for test scores, graduation rates and other benchmarks for students on the basis of their race, income, ethnicity, disability and English Language Learner status, which were widely praised for bring transparency to the student achievement gap.

While calling the bill a “hard won compromise,” the National Disability Rights Network applauded the measure for maintaining the “civil rights underpinning” of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which the ESSA would be the latest incarnation.

“NDRN and the Protection and Advocacy agencies across the country look forward to working with state education agencies, local education agencies families and other advocates to insure that implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act meets its Statement of Purpose, ‘to provide all children significant opportunity to receive fair, equitable and high quality education and to close achievement gaps,'” the NDRN wrote in a statement [PDF].

The Leadership Conference’s letter was was signed by 37 disability and civil rights groups. including the  the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, the Disability Rights Education & Defense FundEaster Seals, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law,  the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities, the National Center for Learning DisabilitiesCouncil of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, the National Disability Rights Network, the National Down Syndrome Congress, and TASH.

Disability Rights Washington, publisher of Rooted in Rights, is the designated protection and advocacy agency for Washington, and is a member of the National Disability Rights Network.