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Senate Education Committee Holds First ESEA Hearing

By Alyson Klein — March 09, 2010 3 min read
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Last week, the House Education and Labor Committee kicked off its hearings on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And today, it was the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee’s turn.

As in the House, there was virtually no discussion of any of the major ESEA proposals the Obama administration has put forward so far, including tying Title I money to rigorous common academic standards and replacing adequate yearly progress with a new mechanism for gauging college-and-career readiness.

There may be more concrete reaction next week. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is scheduled to testify next Wednesday in both the House and Senate on the Obama administration’s ESEA proposals. In fact, the House Committee hearing is actually called “The Obama Administration’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act Reauthorization Blueprint,” according to a notice sent to committee members. (I’m guessing that means the administration’s blueprint, or at least part of it, could be out by that point.)

Most of the discussion at today’s Senate hearing centered around big ideas, like education’s role in the overall economy, as opposed to nitty-gritty details, such as just how to tweak the accountability system at the center of the current version of the ESEA law, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.

The high point of today’s hearing: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who served as Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, asked Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, whether he supported the Teacher Incentive Fund, a $400 million program that doles out grants to districts to create pay-for-performance programs. Van Roekel said he’s for it if his local affiliates are for it, but that he doesn’t want teachers to be judged on just a single test score. Which is pretty much what NEA has said before.

Other interesting points:

*Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of both this committee and the appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending, said he’s concerned about larger class sizes and thinks keeping class sizes small could help teachers be more effective. He’s worried that the feds don’t seem to have stayed focused on the goal of reducing class size. (That was a Clinton administration priority.)

*Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said that he doesn’t think the current testing regime under NCLB is working. He wants to see more formative assessments. “This is ridiculous, the way this is working,” he said of NCLB.

*Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., brought up a litany of perennial concerns about the NCLB law, including that it narrows curriculum (by focusing too heavily on math and science), doesn’t allow for student growth, encourages teachers to focus on “bubble kids,” and penalizes the schools that need the most help.

*Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., the former Denver schools chief, asked what the impediments are to bringing promising practices at the district level to scale.

This was just the first in a very long series of hearings the Senate education committee will hold between now and the end of April on ESEA. Topics are to include standards and assessments, school turnaround, teachers and leaders, special populations (I’m guessing that would include English-language learners and students in special education), and “educating the whole child” (which usually means looking beyond reading and math to subjects including art and music).

Also in Congress ... Tomorrow Rep. George Miler, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Reps.Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Phil Hare, D-Ill., are set to introduce new jobs legislation that would include funding to help retain education jobs, plus aid for local communities, which they could use to hire teachers, law enforcement professionals, and others.

The bill is likely to come as welcome news to education advocates, who are worried that the jobs bill Congress approved earlier this month didn’t include new money to help stave off layoffs at the district level at a time when schools are staring down the funding cliff. The House passed a jobs bill last December that included money to keep teachers employed, but that proposal hasn’t yet gained much traction in the Senate.