Equity & Diversity

Harkin ESEA Draft Draws Fire From Advocates

By Alyson Klein — October 18, 2011 6 min read
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Civil rights groups and advocates for students with disabilities are stung by what they view as a watered-down commitment to such students in the proposed overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act due to be taken up by the Senate, Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee this week.

Although changes are expected to be made to the draft put forth last week by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the committee’s chairman, advocates are angry that the measure would scrap a requirement that states be held accountable for meeting specific student-achievement goals, including for long-ignored student populations, such as racial minorities, students in special education, and English-language learners. The goals, known as adequate yearly progress, or AYP, are a hallmark of the ESEA’s current version, the No Child Left Behind Act, which became law in 2002.

“It is deeply disappointing that a Republican president could be more forceful on gap-closing than is the Democratic chairman of the help Committee,” Amy Wilkins, the vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, a Washington advocacy group for poor and minority children, said in a reference to President George W. Bush, who championed the NCLB law. “There’s some good stuff in [the draft]. But it’s undercut by the lack of goals. That’s a total deal-breaker.”

Such concerns were outlined in a letter to Sen. Harkin and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the ranking Republican on the committee, criticizing the draft the day it was released. Four advocacy groups—the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and the National Council of La Raza—singled out provisions that they say would shift the federal focus away from holding states accountable for improving the performance of economically disadvantaged and minority students, as well as English-learners and students in special education.

“Congress, parents, taxpayers would have no meaningful mechanism by which to hold schools, districts, or states accountable for improving outcomes at the pace our economy demands,” the letter said. “It is not the federal government’s role to dictate how states, districts, or educators get their students to higher levels of success. But the federal government must—in exchange for scarce financial resources—be firm, ambitious, and unequivocal in its demands for higher achievement, high school graduation, and gap closing.”

On the Table

Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., is the Senate education committee's top GOP member.

The Harkin bill is the first comprehensive proposed rewrite of the NCLB law, whose reauthorization has been pending since 2007, and it would include a number of significant changes. Among them:

• Although states would continue to test students in reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school, as under current law, they would be permitted to use either one summative assessment or smaller interim assessments to determine progress. Schools also would continue to report results showing how different groups of students performed.

• Unlike the current law, which has a specific timetable of sanctions for all schools that fail to meet state achievement goals, the Harkin draft calls for a strong federal focus on only the 5 percent of lowest-performing schools and the 5 percent of schools with persistent achievement gaps. States would get to decide what steps, if any, they would take to help struggling schools.

• States would be required to establish new teacher-evaluation systems, based at least in part on student performance. The evaluations would have to be used for professional development.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, heads up the Senate education panel.

• States would have to adopt standards for college and career readiness, but they would not have to sign on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, already adopted by the vast majority of states.

• The Obama administration’s core education redesign programs would be authorized to continue, including the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grant competitions and the Promise Neighborhoods initiative.

The biggest changes would be to the accountability system, which state and local officials have described as too prescriptive and too punitive, but which civil rights advocates say has shone a spotlight on student populations most likely to be at risk academically.

In comments after unveiling his initial proposal, Sen. Harkin said he would have liked to have achievement targets in the bill, but scrapped them in part to keep the measure bipartisan. He has been negotiating with Sen. Enzi on the measure for months. Sen. Enzi is not officially a sponsor of the bill, but he and Sen. Harkin are anticipating bipartisan support in committee.

Sen. Harkin told reporters Oct. 11, the day the draft was released, that the moment was right for a move away from achievement targets, in part because nearly all states have signed on to the common core, whose development was spearheaded by the Council of Chief State Schools Officers and the National Governors Association. That means that all states will be striving to hit a high bar, he said.

“There’s a subtle shift here,” Sen. Harkin. “We are moving into a partnership role with the states.”

Lowest 5 Percent

Unlike the current law, which has a specific timetable of sanctions for all schools that fail to meet state achievement goals, the Harkin draft called for a strong federal focus on only the 5 percent of lowest-performing schools and the 5 percent of schools with persistent achievement gaps.

But the bill would allow states to decide how—and whether—to intervene in most schools.

That worries Raul Gonzalez, the director of legislative affairs for the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, whose advocacy focus includes English-language learners and Hispanic students.

“Clearly, NCLB was a kind of high-water mark as far as accountability [for all students]. ... I think we’re moving in the reverse direction,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “Without strong accountability, we’ll have two education systems, one for poor and minority kids” and one for others.

Advocates for students in special education are particularly concerned about the legislation because students with disabilities are spread throughout a state’s population, not just concentrated in the lowest-performing schools, said Laura W. Kaloi, the public-policy director at the National Center for Learning Disabilities in New York.

Some in the business community also expressed concerns with parts of the draft, while praising the standards and teacher-evaluation portions.

“Limiting accountability and improvement to just the nation’s lowest-performing schools will overlook thousands of schools and millions of students that deserve more fromthe education system,” wrote Craig Barrett, the former chairman of Intel Corp.; William D. Green, the chairman of Accenture; and Edward B. Rust Jr., the chairman of State Farm. All three co-chair the Business Coalition for Student Achievement.

Process Continues

Sen. Harkin told reporters that there may continue to be changes to the proposal, including before committee consideration.

The Harkin bill comes less than a month after the Obama administration outlined a plan to offer states flexibility under key parts of the NCLB law—including the accountability system—in exchange for agreeing to embrace certain school improvement priorities, such as adopting college- and career-ready standards.

But under the waiver package, states would still have to set annual goals for all schools, although they would be given significantly more leeway to craft their accountability systems than they have under the current law.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is also moving a series of bills to overhaul different parts of the law. He has released proposals on funding flexibility, program elimination, and charter schools, but has yet to tackle the sticky issues of accountability at the heart of the NCLB law.

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as Harkin ESEA Draft Draws Fire From Advocates

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