Accountability Measures In 'Straight A's' Questioned

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Accountability, a watchword in this year's education debate in Congress, has become a big rhetorical selling point of a GOP plan to convert funding under a host of federal K-12 programs into block grants.

Republicans say the idea is to couple unprecedented flexibility with tough accountability.

But some critics of the proposal—known as the Academic Achievement for All Act, or "Straight A's"—aren't buying.

"The accountability provisions in Straight A's are meaningless window-dressing," said Amy Wilkins, a senior associate with the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that promotes higher achievement for poor and minority students. "The goals are too low, the time lines are too long, and the sanctions too inconsequential."

The stakes were ratcheted up this month when Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., succeeded despite Democratic opposition in adding a pilot version of Straight A's to the Senate education committee's bill for reauthorizing the $15 billion Elementary and Secondary Education Act. A similar plan was approved by the House last fall on a largely party-line vote.

A centerpiece of the congressional Republicans' education agenda, Straight A's now appears headed for a showdown with Democrats on the Senate floor, and possibly with President Clinton, who is expected to veto any ESEA bill that contains such a measure.

As drafted, a participating state would enter into a five-year agreement with the Department of Education spelling out its goals for improving overall student performance and narrowing the achievement gap between its highest- and lowest-performing students. It also would have to publicly report data annually on student achievement, broken out by race, poverty, and other factors. In exchange, the state could consolidate money from more than a dozen federal programs, including the $8 billion Title I program for disadvantaged students, and use the money for education as it chose.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee's version of the proposal would allow up to 15 states to participate; the House version would allow 10. If a state chose not to participate, school districts in that state could do so on their own.

Five-Year Agreement

When Sen. Gregg introduced his amendment, he emphasized that it would place "stringent" demands on states, with rewards for success and penalties for failure. In fact, he said, "I'm not sure how many states will be willing to do this" for fear of not meeting their goals.

But Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., an education committee member who offered an ESEA accountability amendment that was defeated, questioned the severity of the consequences in an interview earlier this month.

The bill "only establishes a penalty if after the five years the state has made no progress," he said. "The only penalty other than revoking the performance agreement ... is that the secretary [of education] may reduce funds for administrative costs for a period of two years. It doesn't require that he do anything."

Sen. Bingaman argues that issuing block grants and waiting five years for results is unacceptable.

"You can't get accountability on that kind of basis," he said.

Nina Shokraii Rees, a senior analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, counters that the plan's accountability measures are a far cry from the status quo.

"Right now, ... whether they boost academic achievement or not, [states and districts] continue to get a set amount of federal dollars each year," she said.

The five-year time frame is appropriate, she added, because most research recognizes that it takes about that much time for school changes to demonstrate meaningful results. Five years also dovetails with the length of the ESEA reauthorization, she noted.

As for the penalties, she and other Straight A's backers say that imposing sanctions beyond administrative penalties and the loss of flexibility is politically unrealistic. But she argues that the agreements would entail another form of accountability as well.

"Promising to close achievement gaps and signing a contract in public is a fairly bold move that I don't think a lot of states will take lightly," she said.

'Burden of Proof'

Michael Cohen, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, has other problems with the bill.

One essential element absent from Straight A's, he said, is a requirement that states set aside resources to help failing schools and a specific demand to choose from a menu of aggressive interventions to help them. He further contended that letting states set the terms of the agreements would pose a problem.

"The secretary doesn't get to say a word about whether [the goals] are meaningful or not," Mr. Cohen said, describing the bill's accountability measures as "laughable."

A Senate Republican aide, requesting anonymity, said there could be room for compromise on Straight A's, such as shortening to three years the time for reviewing a state's performance, or examining whether the penalties for failure could be stiffer.

But stepping up the accountability measures is unlikely to win over many Democrats, who have other serious objections to Straight A's, including concerns that it does not specifically target federal dollars to low-income students and would undermine the federal government's ability to set national priorities for education.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and an assistant education secretary under President Reagan, suggested that while Straight A's is unproven, states should be allowed to give it a try.

"The burden of proof is on voting to extend 35 years of failure," he said.

Vol. 19, Issue 28, Pages 34, 40

Published in Print: March 22, 2000, as Accountability Measures In 'Straight A's' Questioned
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