Published Online: June 10, 2013
Published in Print: June 12, 2013, as NCLB Bills Split Over Federal Role in K-12

Rival Proposals Show No Clear Path to ESEA Rewrite

Educators' reviews spark deep divisions

Lawmakers in Congress introduced three separate pieces of legislation last week to rewrite the long-stalled Elementary and Secondary Education Act—but none of the measures has bipartisan backing, meaning that there will almost certainly not be a reauthorization this year.

All three bills—like the administration's series of waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act—would move away from "adequate yearly progress," the key yardstick at the center of the 11-year-old federal school accountability law. But the similarities largely end there.

A measure introduced by Senate Democrats—which has gotten the thumbs-up from some influential civil rights groups—would largely pivot off the administration's NCLB waiver system. But Republican bills introduced in both chambers would seek a much slimmer role for the federal government when it comes to accountability, school turnarounds, and education funding.

"We tried hard to get a compromise," Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top lawmaker on the education committee and the author of the Senate GOP legislation, said last week. "We just have dramatically different views of the role of the federal government in education."

'Big Improvement'

See Also
See a side-by-side comparison of the proposals to revamp NCLB, broken down by key issues.

Under the Senate Democratic measure—put forth by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the chairman of the education committee, and endorsed by the 11 other Democrats on the panel—states would be on the hook for setting goals for student achievement. For the 37 states plus the District of Columbia that have waivers, they could stick with those plans. And states that don't already have waivers would have to come up with a set of goals that take into account both overall student achievement and growth.

That's a departure from legislation that Sen. Harkin introduced in the previous Congress, with Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, who at the time was the top Republican on the panel. The bill passed out of committee in October of 2011 with the support of every Democrat and just three Republicans. But it never made it to the floor of the full Senate, in part because of opposition from the civil rights and business communities that argued the legislation didn't go far enough in requiring states to set student-achievement goals.

Those groups don't feel that way this time around.

"This is a big improvement," said Kate Tromble, the director of legislative affairs for the Education Trust, a Washington group that promotes educational equity. She said the organization still sees some potential areas for improvement, but "overall is happy with the direction of the [Harkin] bill."

And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—who expressed big concerns about the 2011 bill—agreed that the Senate legislation would "support and build on state reform efforts."

But the bill seems unlikely to attract support from Republicans in the Senate who are largely on the same page as their House colleagues. Both the House and Senate GOP bills would require states to test students each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school in reading and math, as under NCLB, but otherwise, states would largely be in the driver's seat when it comes to school improvement and goals for student achievement.

Split on Evaluations

Republicans in both the Senate and the House are divided, however, when it comes to teacher evaluations. The Senate Republican measure would allow, but not require, states to use teacher quality to implement new educator evaluations based on student outcomes. The House measure, on the other hand, would require districts to develop evaluations based on student outcomes and they would have to be used in personnel decisions, as determined by the district.

Related Blog

The Senate Democrats' bill is slated for consideration by the full committee this week. If it passes, it's unclear whether it would advance to the floor. Sen. Alexander said he is hoping to see that happen so that lawmakers can fully debate the competing visions.

The House education committee—which approved a similar bill last year on a partisan vote—is scheduled to vote on its new version next week.

For their part, practitioners have been waiting for more than five years for a full-fledged reauthorization and wish that there was a bill that had the support of both Democrats and Republicans—and one that has a good shot at passing.

"We would much rather see a bipartisan attempt so that we can get to the finish line," said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington.


Revamping NCLB

Members of Congress are spelling out their legislative vision for an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the current version of which is No Child Left Behind. Among the ways that rival proposals would deal with key issues:

Accountability

Funding

Low-Performing Schools

Standards

Teachers

Vol. 32, Issue 35, Pages 31,33

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