ESEA Negotiators Near Accords, But Snags Remain
House and Senate negotiators appeared to have reached an accord on annual testing last week, pushing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization one crucial step closer to final passage.
But disagreement remained concerning special education funding and discipline, which could pose a significant hurdle to wrapping up the arduous process of revamping the main federal law for K-12 education. The House-Senate conference committee was scheduled to meet again last Friday to debate issues related to special education, teacher quality, bilingual education, and the use of pesticides in schools.
On the testing and other matters, House Republicans circulated a new agreement last week that would require states to use National Assessment of Educational Progress tests every two years as the benchmark for student achievement in order to receive federal money under the ESEA. A small sample of students in each state would take the assessment's 4th and 8th grade reading and mathematics tests.
No federal rewards or penalties would be based on NAEP scores under the plan, but states could offer rewards to individual schools or teachers when students made significant academic gains on the NAEP tests.
Negotiators had debated how states could gauge results from their own annual reading and math assessments in grades 3-8, which would be required for states to receive aid under the law. The use of the NAEP tests for a sampling of 4th and 8th graders would provide an independent measure of students' performance.
The proposed agreement contains several new provisions that Republicans believe would help ensure the independence and validity of NAEP. It states that the federal government would pick up all costs of administering NAEP. And it promises that Congress would provide considerable funding for states to design and administer the newly required annual tests by the 2005-06 school year.
In addition, the plan sets what it terms an "ambitious but achievable" formula for calculating schools' "adequate yearly progress" in making academic gains, the mechanism used to define failing schools. It would allow states to set the bar for student performance based on their lowest- achieving demographic groups or schools, while ordering that the bar be raised by equal increments every three years. States would be required to achieve 100 percent proficiency for their students within 12 years.
To alleviate fears that a majority of schools would be labeled as failing, the proposal also has a "safe harbor" provision that would allow low-performing schools to show that they were making significant progress, even if they did not meet the requirements for adequate progress. ("Bush Warns Against 'Undoable' ESEA Progress Standard," Aug. 8, 2001.)
Last week, the agreement appeared to have bipartisan support, and the conferees were expected to ratify it this week.
"While there remain issues to be resolved, particularly around funding, in general if we could implement the bill that is coming together at this point, we would view it as a significant achievement," said Daniel Weiss, the chief of staff to Rep. George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Heading into the conference committee, the House ESEA bill did not require states to use NAEP as a benchmark. House Republicans on the panel credited their change of heart to organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the Education Leaders Council, which in recent weeks had advised conservative conferees to adopt the provision.
"That guidance proved very influential to the conferees," said David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, chairman of the education committee.
In what Democrats hailed as a victory, the proposal would significantly alter plans to experiment with broad state and local flexibility. The "Straight A's" plan in the Senate bill would have allowed seven states and 25 districts to consolidate a wide range of federal funding in exchange for performance agreements.
The new plan would allow seven states, and 10 districts within each of those states, to consolidate a smaller pot of administrative federal aid.
Separately, the proposed ESEA reauthorization would give states and districts expanded flexibility to mix together as much as 50 percent of their federal funding, excluding Title I aid, in a broad range of categories. It was the funding formula for special education, meanwhile, that continued to divide lawmakers last week.
Some members from both parties want to make funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandatory, meaning Congress would be forced to allot a certain amount each year for the education of students with disabilities. Language to that effect is in the Senate version of the ESEA, but not the House version, and many leading House members— including Rep. David R. Obey, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee—adamantly oppose mandatory IDEA funding.
"It's a long shot, but we're going to try," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Senate education committee and a strong supporter of the proposed change. Mr. Kennedy and other Senate Democrats held a press conference late last week to try to drum up support for their proposal, which would represent a landmark change in education funding.
For their part, Republicans on the House education committee, most of whom do not support the plan for mandatory funding, released a "fact sheet" last week arguing that much of the increased funding might still not go to students with disabilities. Instead, it said, states and districts could opt to spend up to 55 percent on other education needs.
In addition, even though the IDEA is coming up for reauthorization next year, conferees now must deal with the emotional and divisive issue of disciplining students with disabilities. A House ESEA provision would allow schools to suspend or expel students with disabilities for crimes involving weapons or drugs; a Senate amendment would allow the same for violations of a school's code of conduct. While the conferees have said that they are optimistic and determined to finish the ESEA bill this year, time is running short.
Even if the conference committee agrees on a compromise ESEA bill this week, a lot of work will still have to be done to draft the legislative language, said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association. And with the December holidays looming, members of Congress will want to be back home.
"I would still not rule out that it doesn't get done" this year, Mr. Packer said. "The clock is ticking."
In the meantime, the education spending bill for fiscal 2002, which began Oct. 1, remains unfinished. Negotiations on the appropriations bill that covers the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education hinge largely on the ESEA conferees' work.
John Scofield, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee, said the appropriations conference-committee members still had confidence that the ESEA negotiators would have a final bill this month. Last week, the appropriations conferees were working on the labor and health portions of the bill while anxiously waiting for the final ESEA measure, he said.
"It's hard for us to do a conference [on education funding] because it's hard for us to put a dollar amount to programs that aren't formulated," Mr. Scofield said. "But at some point, you have to pull the trigger and get the bill done."
In a worst-case scenario, some lawmakers and lobbyists fear that Congress could pass a so- called continuing resolution until the end of the next fiscal year, which would finance all programs at the current fiscal 2001 levels.
Vol. 21, Issue 14, Pages 28,31