President Obama and Congress gave students and teachers across America a welcome holiday present by completely revamping the well-intentioned but hopelessly flawed No Child Left Behind education funding law.
President George W. Bush's signature domestic achievement, which was enacted 14 years ago, forced schools to become academic pressure cookers and turned students into "test-taking robots," as some critics put it.
The "extras" that make a well-rounded education and encourage the joy of lifelong learning - art, music, physical education, critical thinking, civic participation - became afterthoughts, or were sacrificed altogether.
No Child Left Behind was an understandable response to what Bush called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." For too long, the poor education many schools delivered to disadvantaged students had been tolerated as just a grim fact of life.
But the unprecedented federal intervention that resulted didn't do nearly enough to address all the non-academic challenges that low-performing students bring to the classroom. The federal scheme simply punished schools that aren't full of students who show up ready and eager to learn. Teachers who took on the challenge of educating those students were browbeaten for not being miracle workers.
The new Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law by Obama on Dec. 10, puts away the federal hammer that came with federal education funding. Students must still be tested regularly, with public disclosure of school-wide results, including the scores for disadvantaged students. But states will have more flexibility in crafting those tests, and deciding how they respond to trouble spots in schools. More federal money will help states expand high-quality pre-kindergarten education, a strategy that's proven effective.
Some skeptics worry that, without more intense federal oversight, states and districts will go back to shrugging off the needs of students in bad schools. It's a valid concern, especially because the enduring fallout from the Great Recession and inequitable funding schemes have left many schools in Pennsylvania and elsewhere struggling for adequate resources to do their jobs.
Some obscure provisions of the new law reportedly create opportunities to siphon public education money into private businesses and religious schools. But on the whole, the law makes the feds a partner in problem-solving, rather than a high-handed boss who says "do it my way, or else."
The strong bipartisan support for the change was a rare and welcome break from the chronic gridlock afflicting Washington. Most Republicans supported it, because they prefer to give states and localities the prime responsibility for education. Obama and fellow Democrats saw how No Child Left Behind's impossible standards were used to discredit public schools and push for a privatized system based on vouchers.
Ironically, this now-discredited expansion of federal authority was the handiwork of a Republican president, and the rollback was signed by a Democrat. That strange political turn speaks to just how far the good intentions behind a bold federal education experiment had gone awry.