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Lawmakers May Debate Testing, Teacher Evaluations in NCLB Renewal

By Alyson Klein — July 15, 2013 7 min read
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Big news of the week is that the U.S. House of Representatives may consider a long-stalled bill to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (It’s set for possible floor consideration on Thursday, according to the House schedule.)

UPDATE: House leaders are doing intensive outreach on the bill today. Advocates say it looks like the vote count is going to be close. If GOP leaders don’t have enough support, they could pull the bill from consideration this week. After all, there are two other bills scheduled. “They have a back-up bill and a back-up to the back-up,” one advocate said.

The bill, which was written by U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn, the chairman of the House education committee, would give states and districts far more latitude when it comes to accountability and spending, but it would leave some federal role in place. The bill got only GOP support in committee.

The big question is whether the (arguably, very conservative) measure can make it past the House with just (or mostly) Republican votes. Democratic leaders, have been pretty clear they hate this bill and aren’t going to do anything to help it along. Some Republican lawmakers may think this bill heads in the right direction, but would rather see Congress go much farther (as in, essentially no federal role in education at all). The question is: Will they still vote for it? More here.

So far, there have been 74 amendments filed. A gatekeeper panel (called the Rules Committee, for everyone who doesn’t spend their days glued to C-SPAN) will get to decide which amendments members vote on and which they don’t. The Rules Committee will be considering the amendments on Wednesday at 3 p.m., so mark your calendars. Spoiler alert: The final tally of amendments will definitely be a lot less than 74.

The full list of the amendments for you true blue edunerds is right here. Got better things to do than read through them all? Can’t blame you. I did it, so you don’t have to.

Some highlights:

Portablity! Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the Majority Leader, who has taken a big interest in education issues lately, has an amendment that would call for Title I funds to follow students to the public school of their choice. (You read that right, public not private. I previewed this here.) Other lawmakers, including Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, introduced similar amendments that would also pertain to private schools.

•The Most Interesting Amendment award could very well go to a bipartisan proposal from Reps. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., and Mark Takano, D-Calif. (a former teacher). It would scrap the testing in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school currently required under the current No Child Left Behind Act (and in the bill). Instead, states would just have to test students once at some point between grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12. (That’s the same as for science under current law.) States could exceed the new testing requirements, if they wanted to. This amendment would bring about a big change if it’s enacted (which it probably won’t be). Still, it’s notable that testing angst is bipartisan.

The folks at the National Education Association are big fans of the provision. “We think overall that will help reduce the testing and get back to teaching and learning,” said Mary Kusler, the union’s director of government relations. The union is also a fan of an amendment by Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., that would clarify that districts can use multiple measures (other than just tests) for accountability.

Teacher eval alert: There are a few amendments, including one from Bishop, that would get rid of a requirement in the bill that districts and states craft teacher-evaluation systems based on student outcomes. This is a big deal because the federal teacher-evaluation requirement is one huge difference between this bill and the ESEA reauthorization vision put forth by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (the top Republican on the Senate education committee). Kline is a big believer in taking student outcomes into account when it comes to teacher evaluations. So is Alexander, but he doesn’t think requiring those sorts of evaluations is in the federal purview. If House members get to vote on this provision, it will be interesting to see if they side with Kline or Alexander.

And speaking of teacher evaluation, Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., has an amendment that would make it clear that nothing in the bill is meant to water down collective bargaining. That would include the language requiring states and districts to develop educator evaluation systems based on student outcomes. That’s another NEA fave.

• A few amendments take major aim at the federal role in education, or the U.S. Department of Education. One, by Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, would allow states to reject federal grant money for education, and instead would use those dollars to reduce the national debt. Another, by Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., would require the secretary of education to slash the department’s workforce by 5 percent. And Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., wants to substitute the so-called “A-plus” Act for this bill. The measure, which was originally sponsored by Bishop, would allow states to largely opt out of the testing and accountability requirements in the measure, proposing their own plans instead. Cliff notes version of the A-Plus Act here.

•Big theme for Democrats: They are clearly worried that the bill doesn’t require states to design accountability systems that require them to set achievement goals for particular populations (or “subgroups” of students) such as English-language learners or students in special education. For instance, Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., has an amendment that would require the secretary of education to reject any accountability plan that doesn’t move the needle on student achievement or graduation rates for those with disabilities. Several other Democratic lawmakers are trying to make a similar case on behalf of English-language learners.

•Some Republicans are also worried about special populations. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., whose son has special needs, has introduced an amendment that would put in place more stringent testing requirements for students in special education than what’s in the underlying bill. (And she’s bucking her own party on this one.)

•On a wonkier note, folks are clearly concerned about language in the bill that would get rid of maintenance of effort, which requires school districts to keep their own spending up at a certain level in order to tap federal funds. There are a number of amendments to make changes in that area—all sponsored by Democrats.

•And speaking of wonky ... Title I funding formula fight? Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., wants his All Children are Equal amendment added to the bill. Everything you ever wanted to know about it here.

•Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, has an amendment that would require due process if a state or district wants to close a school or merge it with another school.

•Another notable Broun amendment would strike language in the bill requiring that school documents be printed in languages other than English so that parents who speak other languages can understand them.

•For the overall Democratic vision, look no further than the substitute filed by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., which would generally require states to set more- explicit achievement goals for all students, including members of subgroups. There’s also a big emphasis in the substitute on wraparound services and bolstering teacher professional development through data. More here.

What’s not in the amendments: a big slam on the Common Core State Standards. (There is however, one amendment that expresses the “sense of Congress” that Race to the Top “coerced” states into adopting Common Core.) Still, score one for the bill’s sponsors. They must’ve convinced most Republican lawmakers that the language that’s already in the bill, which essentially prohibits the education secretary from doing anything to promote the common core, is strong enough. There’s also no amendment to get rid of the federal Education Department. Again, that could bode well for the bill’s sponsors.

The place to be tomorrow for fans of this bill: Two Rivers Public Charter School in the District of Columbia, (which had more students on its waiting list than any other charter in the city). Cantor and Kline, plus Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., the subcommittee chairman, other committee members and charter advocates, will be touring the school and then holding a press conference. (Number one question from reporters: Can your bill actually pass? How confident are you?)

Not ESEAed out yet? I’ve previewed the politics surrounding this bill here, here and here.