Senate Moderates Release NCLB Overhaul Plan

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., visits a 4th grade classroom at the Walker Jones Education Campus, in Washington, where he and other senators outlined their vision for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., visits a 4th grade classroom at the Walker Jones Education Campus, in Washington, where he and other senators outlined their vision for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
—Andrew Councill for Education Week

Plan mirrors Obama's blueprint on revision, with eye toward flexibility

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A group of moderate Democratic senators has released a set of principles for revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that largely echoes the Obama administration’s vision for overhauling the law as outlined in the administration blueprint put forth almost a year ago.

Still, the statement of principles outlined March 2 marks the first time in recent years that a group of lawmakers has come together with a vision for revising the current version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, which was slated for renewal in 2007.

ESEA renewal “has got to be a top priority” for this Congress, said U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., who worked with Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., the administration’s key Senate ally on K-12 issues, to lead the development of the moderates’ ESEA wish list. Nine of their colleagues signed on to the proposal.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who was on hand when the senators unveiled their ideas at the Walker-Jones Education Campus, a pre-K-8 school in Washington, gave the lawmakers a thumbs-up for moving on education.

“Everywhere I go, people are begging us to fix this law. We have to do it together,” Mr. Duncan said, reiterating his call to pass the renewal by August.

It remains to be seen whether the Bennet-Hagan approach will appeal to moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats, whose support will be needed to get an ESEA reauthorization bill through the Senate. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who is the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, has said he would like to see a bill introduced by Easter.

The principles outlined by the group of moderates call for revising the accountability system at the heart of the NCLB law so it focuses on student growth over time, as opposed to the current system, which compares different cohorts of students. Many states are already using such measures through a pilot project at the Education Department that was started by Mr. Duncan’s predecessor, Margaret Spellings.

The lawmakers also want to offer rewards or incentives to schools that are making major jumps in student achievement. That idea is similar to the administration’s Title I rewards proposal, unveiled in the president’s fiscal year 2012 budget request, which would, in essence, give money and flexibility to schools that help students make progress.

And the senators want to give states more flexibility in figuring out how to intervene in most schools that miss the law’s achievement targets, especially those that are struggling with a particular group of students, such as students in special education, as opposed to their entire population. The federal government should, however, be stringent when it comes to strategies for fixing the lowest-performing schools, under the framework.

The principles would largely keep in place the Obama administration’s four options for turning around such schools, which include steps such as turning a school over to a charter operator, closing the school, removing half the teachers, and/or putting in a new instructional program, and extending learning time while beefing up professional development.

When it comes to teachers, the senators would like to see colleges of education be held accountable for the performance of their graduates. And they want to provide competitive money to create and scale up promising teacher preparation programs.

They also want to see new systems for measuring teacher effectiveness that incorporate a number of measures, including student outcome data, to be developed with teacher cooperation. And they want more on-the-job support for teachers, including extra money for those who take on extra responsibilities.

They would like to see a continuation of Race to the Top, the administration’s signature K-12 initiative, which rewarded states for embracing certain education reform strategies, such as charter schools and performance pay. And they want to extend the Investing in Innovation, or i3, program, which is intended to scale up promising practices at the district level.

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Finally, the lawmakers would like to fix the so-called “comparability loophole” in Title I, so that schools would have to report salary data for teachers.

Bipartisan Appeal?

Some of the group’s proposals are likely to appeal to Republicans, said John Bailey, who served as an aide to President George W. Bush on education and labor issues.

“Republicans would rally around the teacher and leader section, particularly around pay-for-performance,” he said. But he views some of the proposals as politically puzzling, such as the inclusion of the administration’s turnaround models. “I was sort of surprised to see that in here,” Mr. Bailey said, noting that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized the models as too prescriptive.

Mr. Bailey also said he was surprised to see the proposed continuation of the Race to the Top and i3 grant programs—both of which haven’t had much luck finding funding in the current budget debates in Congress.

“This just felt like a marker for the administration’s proposals,” he said.

Some of the lawmakers who signed onto the principles will be introducing bills on aspects of the proposal in coming weeks. For instance, Sen. Hagan is working on legislation dealing with turning around low-performing schools, said Sadie Weiner, spokeswoman for Sen. Hagan.

Sen. Harkin said: “My colleagues have a great wealth of insight to offer on education and I welcome their recommendations for ESEA. This statement of principles adds to the strong momentum we have for a timely reauthorization.”

In addition to Sen. Bennet and Sen. Hagan, the set of principles was signed by Democratic Sens. Mark Begich, of Alaska; Thomas Carper, of Delaware; Chris Coons, of Delaware; Dianne Feinstein, of California; Herb Kohl, of Wisconsin; Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana; Joe Manchin, of West Virginia; and Mark Warner, of Virginia; and by Connecticut’s Joseph Lieberman, an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

Vol. 30, Issue 23, Pages 16-17

Published in Print: March 9, 2011, as Moderate Democrats Release Principles for ESEA Renewal
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