Published Online: January 28, 2011
Published in Print: February 2, 2011, as ESEA Renewal Could Gain Momentum
Updated: March 24, 2012

ESEA Renewal May See New Momentum

“We also have to win the race to educate our kids,” the president declared in his State of the Union address. In his Jan. 25 speech to Congress, President Barack Obama also said the federal No Child Left Behind Act should be replaced by a more flexible approach.
—Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Education leaders in Congress are signaling that they’re prepared to collaborate with the White House on a long-stalled reauthorization of the main federal law for K-12 education, after President Barack Obama sought to move education back to the top of the national agenda in his State of the Union address last week.

Precollegiate policy is widely seen as one of the few areas in which the politically divided Congress can cooperate with the Obama administration. White House backing is considered crucial to building and sustaining momentum for a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which numerous observers have argued is in serious need of revision. Its current version, the No Child Left Behind Act, became law in 2002.

Key lawmakers acknowledged last week that enacting legislation to reauthorize the ESEA would be tricky, but said they were ready to get going.

“I don’t want to make it sound like it’s going to be a piece of cake or too easy,” Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a leading Republican on education issues, said in a conference call last week with reporters. But, he added, “I look forward to coming up with a consensus to fix the [law’s] problems.”

Last year, with Democrats controlling both chambers of Congress, little progress was made on a blueprint President Obama unveiled in March for overhauling the law. Now, the president faces a decidedly different Congress, with a Republican-controlled House and a smaller Democratic majority in the Senate.

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Jan. 25.
—Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

In his Jan. 25 address, President Obama gave education and his K-12 agenda prominent attention, tying them directly to the nation’s economic future.

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” Mr. Obama said.

He touted the success of the $4 billion Race to the Top competition, which rewarded 11 states and the District of Columbia for their plans for improving student achievement.

President Barack Obama

State of the Union Address, Jan. 25

"Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation's Sputnik moment."

"Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America's success. But if we want to win the future—if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas—then we also have to win the race to educate our kids."

"It's family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair."

"When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance. But too many schools don't meet this test. That's why instead of just pouring money into a system that's not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top. To all 50 states, we said, 'If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we'll show you the money."

"Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. ... And Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that's more flexible and focused on what's best for our kids."

“Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that is more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids,” the president said, eliciting applause from House and Senate members.

“Race to the Top,” he boasted, “is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.”

He also highlighted the recent effort to develop common academic standards. To date, more than 40 states have agreed to adopt those standards for mathematics and English/language arts.

In addition, President Obama used his address to reiterate his call for recruiting 100,000 new math and science teachers by the end of the decade.

He also asked Congress to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws to make it easier for high-performing college students from abroad to stay in this country. And he urged lawmakers to make it possible for students who came to the United States as children but lack legal documentation to gain citizenship by attending college or enlisting in the military, the aim of the measure known as the DREAM Act that has failed so far to win passage in Congress.

Moving Back the Goal

The reauthorization of the ESEA has been pending since 2007. The Obama administration released its blueprint to revamp the law nearly a year ago, but the plan never gained traction in Congress, in part because lawmakers were busy with other pressing priorities, including major health-care legislation.

But, after months of closed-door discussions, there appears to be agreement among lawmakers on broad issues that will be central to the reauthorization. It’s unclear, however, whether there will be similar accord on the details.

Still, lawmakers from both parties say they want to tweak the No Child Left Behind Act’s signature yardstick for schools, known as adequate yearly progress. The administration’s blueprint would push back the 2014 goal post for bringing all students to proficiency on state tests. And it would replace that proficiency goal with new standards aimed at getting students ready for college or the workforce.

Sen. Alexander, a former U.S. secretary of education, commended the administration for encouraging the embrace of common standards across states. But he made it clear he doesn’t want to see “federal” standards.

“We just can’t do that,” he said. “We don’t have the right to do that.”

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers also appear to share the administration’s qualms about the law’s goal—the end of the 2013-14 school year—for having all students reach proficiency. And they have indicated that they want to make it easier to gauge schools’ impact on individual student achievement, and to ensure that schools that are progressing aren’t labeled as failures.

Leading Republican and Democratic lawmakers also say they want to give states and districts far more control over shaping the strategies most schools use to improve student achievement.

Even as Republicans signaled they would work with President Obama on the ESEA renewal, they made it clear that their top priority is holding down federal spending, given the ballooning federal deficit and national debt.

Republicans have said they want to dial back discretionary spending to fiscal 2008 levels, despite the president’s call to invest more in schools, while holding down overall spending levels.

‘Separate Issues’

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has championed the ESEA reauthorization for more than a year, argues that the spending clash needn’t complicate discussion of policy.

“Those are two totally separate issues, and one should not hold up the other,” said Secretary Duncan, who also participated in the conference call with Sen. Alexander and other congressional leaders on education. “There’s no price tag for fixing NCLB; it won’t cost a nickel.”

The Senate plans to dive right into drafting a reauthorization bill, said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. During the conference call, he said he’d like to get a bill prepared for committee consideration by the Easter recess and ready for Mr. Obama’s signature by the end of the summer.

Sen. Harkin said there’s bipartisan agreement that the federal government should focus on the needs of the lowest-performing schools and advance “teacher-evaluation and -improvement systems.”

And he wants to ensure that the new version of the ESEA allows schools to spend more time on subjects other than reading and math, such as the arts. Critics have long complained that the law has encouraged schools to squeeze other subjects out of the curriculum because reading and math drive the No Child Left Behind accountability system.

Still, there are deep intraparty divisions on K-12 policy. Democrats have clashed over whether test scores should be a big factor in determining teacher effectiveness and pay. Republicans lack consensus on whether there should even be a federal Department of Education.

Sen. Alexander, who has pushed for a streamlined, targeted reauthorization, said lawmakers can get past those divisions by focusing the renewal on addressing pitfalls in the law, which is widely seen as punitive and inflexible by practitioners and policymakers on all points of the political spectrum. He said he would like to “leave the decisions that divide Washington” to states, district superintendents, and others operating at the local level.

For their part, top Democrats are ready to tackle their teacher-quality divisions, Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in an interview last week. He argued that teachers need information on how their practices affect student learning.

“You can’t fly blind” on that, he said. But he added: “It’s very clear that it will have to be done with the involvement of teacher organizations. I’m pretty comfortable that, done properly, the votes will be there.”

Meanwhile, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the new chairman of the education committee, said he’s reaching out to new members of the panel—and the House GOP caucus—on the ESEA.

“We haven’t had a chance to get into the details,” Rep. Kline said in a separate Jan. 26 call with reporters. He said he would work with new members to determine the right role for the federal government in education.

Among members he has talked to, Rep. Kline said, he’s heard “strong concerns about the [Obama] blueprint and strong concerns about NCLB.” But he said there is a “common, bipartisan understanding that we have to do something.”

Teacher Initiative

Meanwhile, on President Obama’s call to recruit a new crop of teachers in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, the White House appears poised to back up the idea with money. The administration is proposing $100 million for the initiative, including $20 million for research on how best to recruit, prepare, and retain STEM teachers, as well as $80 million to expand effective STEM teacher-preparation programs, according to materials released by the administration after the president’s address.

“The president has done an outstanding job using the bully pulpit” to focus on math and science education, said James Brown, a co-chair of the STEM Education Coalition, a Washington-based alliance of business, technology, and education groups working to improve instruction in those subjects. “But in this environment, the actual dollars behind it makes it seem very real.”

Vol. 30, Issue 19, Pages 1,20

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