Advocates, Policymakers Split on House ESEA Draft
Proposal's prospects subject of hot debate
Education advocates and policymakers are sharply divided on whether House Republicans' bare-bones approach to federal K-12 policy, as outlined in a draft bill issued last week, is a move in the right direction—or even a politically viable approach to rewriting the decade-old No Child Left Behind Act.
Civil rights groups and advocates for special populations of students took a big swing last fall at a bipartisan bill approved by the Senate education committee to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and they found the House measure even more distressing.
But groups that represent state and school district officials—including the Council of Chief State School Officers, the American Association of School Administrators, and the National School Boards Association—generally found much to like in the draft, which was introduced Jan. 6 by U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. ("House ESEA Draft Would Reduce Federal School Role," Jan. 11, 2012.)
There are similar divisions over the bill's political prospects. Some advocates, such as Chris Minnich, the senior membership director for the CCSSO, think the House draft is a step toward a reauthorization this year of the ESEA. No Child Left Behind is the current version of the ESEA, which was first enacted in 1965.
"We think that this sets the table for some sort of action that could actually get to the finish line," said Mr. Minnich, although he said there are areas that CCSSO would like to see discussed, including student-achievement targets.
A number of differences exist between an ESEA renewal bill approved by the Senate education committee last fall and a house draft proposal. Both proposals also contrast with the Obama administration’s vision for overhauling the law, which is reflected in its plan allowing states that meet certain conditions to receive waivers of some mandates under the law’s current version, the No Child Left Behind Act.
But Charles Barone, the director of federal legislation for Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee in New York City, said the House bill is so partisan that he has "trouble taking [it] seriously."
"I think this is a stage prop rather a real legislative effort," he said. "They're just doing this to say they did something."
He doesn't believe the testing and school improvement language in the bill is going to be appeal to many Democrats. Accountability "would be pretty much anything goes," Mr. Barone said. "It's just a bunch of vague language."
The House GOP draft would amount to a major rollback of the federal accountability system at the heart of the NCLB law.
Schools would still test students annually in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, but would no longer have to hit particular achievement goals. Achievement data would still be broken down to show how different subgroups of students, such as English-language learners and students with disabilities, are doing relative to their peers. But schools that missed achievement targets for those students wouldn't be subject to any federally mandated fixes.
And there would no longer be any federal prescriptions for the schools that are perennially struggling. Instead, it would be up to states to figure out how to boost student achievement in all of their schools.
Rep. Kline initially discussed the prospect of a bipartisan reauthorization measure with Rep. George Miller of California, the education committee's top Democrat, but the two were unable to reach agreement on key areas. Still, if reauthorization of the ESEA is to be completed this year, it will need significant bipartisan support, since Democrats control the Senate, and President Barack Obama would ultimately need to sign any legislation.
In fact, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee and an author of that chamber's bipartisan legislation, said he won't move forward on the Senate measure until the House puts forth its own bipartisan bill.
Already, some Democrats in key positions have flagged Rep. Kline's draft as backing away from the civil rights protections in the NCLB law.
"The draft language abandons students, parents, and taxpayers alike by failing to hold school systems accountable for improving student achievement," Rep. Miller said in a statement. "It undermines programs for our most vulnerable students, shirking the civil rights responsibilities of the federal government."
And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has continued to make it clear that the Obama administration isn't waiting for Congress to act—it is going to proceed with its plan to offer states waivers of parts of the NCLB law in exchange for embracing certain priorities for changes in education. So far, 11 states have applied for those waivers, and approvals could begin rolling in as early as next week.
Mr. Duncan said he's also not pleased with the policy specifics in the House GOP legislation; he called the bill a retreat from "reform, accountability, and bipartisanship."
But Rep. Kline said his draft builds on the lesson of the NCLB law that the federal government isn't in the best position to oversee K-12 policy.
"No Child Left Behind taught us that parents, teachers, and state and local leaders are more suited to address students' needs than a one-size-fits-all accountability system developed by Washington bureaucrats," Rep. Kline wrote in an opinion piece published Jan. 6 on CNN's website.
The Kline draft sparked similar clashes among education groups. Organizations that represent district and state officials like the idea of giving local officials a much bigger say in accountability and funding decisions.
"We believe the shift had to take place from the federal control to [greater] state and local options," said Reginald Felton, the assistant executive director for congressional relations at the NSBA, which is based in Alexandria, Va.
But civil rights groups are worried the House measure could eviscerate the NCLB law's focus on students from disadvantaged families, racial minorities, and other subgroups.
"The most devastating impact of this bill is that we would continue to [confine] poor and minority students to inferior schools with no hope for either improvement or for an exit strategy for those parents," said Dianne Piché, the director of the education program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, based in Washington.
And she is unhappy about the draft's move away from requiring states to craft standards for college and career readiness, a central feature of the Senate bill and the administration's waiver offer.
"This is an open invitation for all states to water down their standards," she said.
Laura Kaloi, the public-policy director for the National Center for Learning Disabilities in New York City, is concerned the draft could result in much lower expectations for students in special education. In particular, she's worried that the draft doesn't cap the number of students in special education that can take alternative assessments. That may mean those children will be subject to less rigorous tests—and lower standards, she said.
Ms. Kaloi said the draft represents a "retraction from any kind of standard or expectations for students with disabilities" who have "benefited greatly from being part of an accountability system with high expectations."
But Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank in Washington, said such concerns aren't likely to be enough to scuttle Rep. Kline's bill.
"You could hammer out a deal; it's not intractable," said Mr. Petrilli, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush. The civil rights groups and other organizations that oppose the bill because of its handling of accountability "can only hope to slow down and delay the process. It's hard to imagine how the politics would change that would suddenly allow them to get what they want."
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