Less than a week after it was unveiled, the Obama administration’s blueprint for overhauling the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is drawing both bipartisan support and skepticism from the congressional committees tasked with the law’s reauthorization.
In a pair of Wednesday appearances, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan assured members of the House Education and Labor Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee that the administration wants to extend flexibility to states and districts while boosting student-achievement goals.
The reception, particularly in the Senate, was generally positive to the plan unveiled March 13 for revamping the ESEA, whose current version—signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002—is the No Child Left Behind Act.
Key Republicans called the plan a good jumping-off point for debate. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.—himself a former federal education secretary—deemed it “an excellent beginning,” particularly its support for rewarding districts that are making strides in raising student achievement.
Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the committee, said he thought that the blueprint stayed true to Secretary Duncan’s promise to be tight on goals for student achievement, but looser than the NCLB law on how districts and schools must get there.
The blueprint seeks to revamp the accountability system at the heart of No Child Left Behind by focusing federal resources and direction on the schools that are struggling the most to improve student achievement. It would give states and districts more flexibility to determine how to intervene in schools that are generally performing well but may have trouble reaching students in a particular subgroup, such as English-language learners.
The broad proposal would place more of an emphasis on students’ academic growth, rather than comparing different cohorts of students with one another. But it would retain NCLB’s testing regime and its requirement that states disaggregate student-achievement data by racial and ethnic group and by other populations such as students in special education.
Sen. Enzi’s main objection appeared to be the perceived lack of a good option for low-performing rural schools among the four “turnaround” models spelled out in both the blueprint and the regulations for $3.5 billion in School Improvement Grants, the bulk of which is being made available under the 2009 federal economic-stimulus law.
Those models, aimed at perennially low-performing schools, include some dramatic interventions, such as closing a school and reopening it as a charter. In nearly all cases, the school’s principal would be removed.
Mr. Duncan told Sen. Enzi that low-performing rural schools could try the so-called “transformation model,” which is widely considered the least drastic of the four options. It requires schools to offer extended learning time, institute alternative pay plans, and try out new instructional programs, among other remedies.
Progressive Democrats have sometimes questioned the administration’s approach to K-12 education. But Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who is viewed as a liberal, told Mr. Duncan, “I really love that you’re focusing on progress and growth and not just hitting an arbitrary score.”
However, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., expressed displeasure that the administration has proposed in its fiscal 2011 budget request to make some money for teacher training available through competitive grants. She is worried that troubled programs wouldn’t have the resources to improve.
In the House panel’s hearing, the Obama administration’s emphasis on competitive funding also sparked skepticism among House Democrats.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said that, given the still-sluggish economy, districts need to target money to averting layoffs and heading off programmatic cutbacks, and may need all the federal aid possible. While he said he appreciated that the administration’s education redesign goals are furthered through the competitive grants, he worried that it may not be the right time to go forward with that approach.
Republicans also questioned key aspects of the ESEA blueprint. Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the 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.
“These tools would become optional—but no longer required—for some struggling schools. In reality, this means few if any students would have access to the immediate lifeline that tutoring and transfers provide,” Kline said.
Rep. Kline also appeared skeptical of language in the blueprint that would identify some states as “challenge” states. The administration’s plan says that such states would “face additional restrictions on the use of ESEA funds and may be required to work with an outside organization to improve student academic achievement.”
Meanwhile, the House education committee’s chairman, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. said the blueprint “lays the important markers” as Congress begins to rewrite the law. But he also asked about the research behind the four strategies for turning around low-performing schools.
Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., the chairman of the subcommittee overseeing K-12 policy, said he is worried about the administration’s push to expand charter schools. He is concerned that such schools siphon resources from regular public schools. The former teacher also said that the administration’s push to revamp teacher evaluation should take into account the kinds of students a teacher is dealing with.
But Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., who is retiring from Congress after his current term is up, echoed his Senate counterparts, calling the blueprint “a good place to start.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week