Published Online: March 26, 2010
Published in Print: March 31, 2010, as Tests Loom For ESEA In Congress
Updated: March 23, 2012

ESEA Renewal Blueprint Faces Legislative Hurdles

As policymakers and education advocates await details on how the Obama administration plans to move forward with its recently unveiled blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the chances of an ESEA renewal this year remain tough to gauge.

Although the principles underlying the blueprint have drawn praise in many quarters, influential members of Congress have qualms about specific points—and the plan faces outright opposition from both national teachers’ unions, which together represent 4.6 million members.

“It has a chance of passing, but I don’t think it’s a probability of passing,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. “Teachers’ unions are expressing pretty grave concerns. Republicans aren’t expressing great enthusiasm; they seem to be holding back.”

Mr. Jennings, for nearly three decades an aide to Democrats on the House education committee, said the administration took a good first step March 13 by unveiling its blueprint to reshape the current version of the ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002.

Now the process of turning that 41-page blueprint into legislation is in the hands of education leaders on Capitol Hill.

The chairman of the House and Senate education committees, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, respectively, face a difficult task.

After focusing intensely for more than a year on health-care-overhaul legislation, Congress has scant time to finish this year’s business before members turn their attention to the midterm elections.

Still, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made three successive appearances on Capitol Hill after the ESEA plan’s release, trying to sell his reauthorization ideas—and his fiscal 2011 budget proposals—to lawmakers.

The blueprint aims to retain the NCLB’s emphasis on assessments and accountability, while encouraging tougher academic standards and giving states and districts more leeway in targeting interventions to the schools that are struggling the most. It would include financial rewards and new funding flexibility for high-achieving districts and states.

Side-by-Side Guide to Reauthorization

The Obama administration’s blueprint for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act seeks to retain assessment, accountability, and other features of the existing law while offering states and school districts greater flexibility.

Key members of Congress gave the draft a generally favorable review, while pressing for specifics on issues such as teacher quality and rural schools.

For instance, Rep. Miller asked about the research base behind the four interventions the Department of Education has proposed for turning around the lowest-performing schools.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said he thought that the blueprint stayed true to Mr. Duncan’s promise to be tight on goals for achievement and looser on how districts and schools get there.

But Sen. Enzi worried that there doesn’t seem to be a good option for low-performing rural schools among the four turnaround models in both the blueprint and the existing regulations for $3.5 billion in school improvement money under the ESEA.

NEA, AFT Discontent

The administration’s plan already has two significant detractors: the 3.2 million-member National Education Association and the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, told the House Appropriations Committee this month that she doesn’t like the proposal to ask states to adopt college- and career-ready academic standards and implement new teacher-evaluation systems in order to tap Title I grants for districts, which go to help disadvantaged students.

Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the NEA, has said the blueprint, which would retain the testing regime in the NCLB law, still relies too heavily on standardized tests, rather than looking at other measures of student and school success.

At a House Education and Labor Committee hearing earlier this month, a leading Democrat on education issues voiced similar concerns.

“How do we assure that any teacher evaluation is, first of all, developed in collaboration with teachers and really accurately measures teacher performance?” asked Rep. Dale E. Kildee, the chairman of the House subcommittee that deals with K-12 policy.

Important Republicans also have some misgivings.

Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the ranking Republican on the House education committee, praised the bipartisan approach to reauthorizing the law, but said he worried about the impact of the administration’s proposal to stop mandating school choice and supplemental education services for students in schools that are failing to meet achievement targets.

“This means few if any students would have access to the immediate lifeline that tutoring and transfers provide,” Mr. Kline said during a hearing.

Fixing a ‘Flawed’ Law

The Obama administration contends that its long-awaited proposal is aimed at fixing the “flawed” No Child Left Behind law—which has been up for reauthorization since 2007—to make it more flexible for states, while encouraging them to set higher standards for students.

Under the blueprint, the NCLB deadline for bringing all students to proficiency by the 2013-14 school year—deemed unrealistic by most observers—would be replaced with a goal of ensuring that by 2020 all students were ready for college or a career.

But that target appears to be aspirational: During a rollout of the plan, Carmel Martin, the department’s assistant secretary for policy, program evaluation, and planning, said the 2020 date wasn’t an absolute deadline.

And, in a nod to flexibility, the blueprint would allow states and districts to use “differentiated consequences” to target interventions to schools. Former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Mr. Duncan’s predecessor, already had introduced a pilot project experimenting with that concept.

The blueprint calls for focusing the most dramatic interventions on the most troubled schools—those whose performance puts them in the lowest 5 percent in their states. Such schools would have to choose one of four intervention strategies spelled out in existing regulations for the $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant program.

The blueprint would retain key aspects of the NCLB law, including its requirement for annual testing in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and disaggregating student data for populations such as racial minorities, English-language learners, and students in special education.

The blueprint also calls for measuring student achievement based on individual student growth, in part to give schools credit for helping students advance, even if they failed to meet proficiency targets. Ms. Spellings had permitted states to adopt such a system through a growth-model pilot project.

Interest and Skepticism

Lawmakers in both chambers greeted the administration’s outline as a good jumping-off point for their work.

“We greatly agree on a number of ... things,” Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate education subcommittee dealing with K-12 policy and a former U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, told Mr. Duncan at a recent hearing. “This is a very helpful blueprint.”

Still, it’s unclear whether rank-and-file lawmakers will go along with the administration’s approach.

“My local schools are already telling me we just got done [implementing] one bad system,” said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., a prominent conservative, who is running for governor of his state. “Now you quote-unquote ‘geniuses’ in Washington are coming up with a new approach.”

And a liberal Democrat, Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California, surprised herself in echoing some of Rep. Hoekstra’s views.

“I hate to sound like Mr. Hoekstra—he and I never talk the same,” Ms. Woolsey said. “But I really worry we’ve got a new team in town and a new White House and a new secretary, so now we’ve got to do something new, but it won’t be that different.”

Vol. 29, Issue 27, Pages 1,22-23

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