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Civil Rights, State Chiefs, Business Groups Oppose Harkin-Enzi Bill

By Alyson Klein — October 19, 2011 2 min read
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A broad basket of groups, including Chiefs for Change, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Down Syndrome Society, Democrats for Education Reform, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and The Education Trust today officially came out against a bill sponsored by U.S. Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo.

This isn’t the first time these groups have expressed concerns about the legislation. The difference here is that this is official opposition. And it’s a lot of groups, not limited to some in the civil rights community. A number of disability-advocacy groups are also on the letter, an interesting turn of events, given that Harkin is a celebrated advocate for students with disabilities.

The groups are chiefly objecting to the bill’s accountability provisions, which would refocus the federal role on only the lowest performing schools, leaving states to decide how and whether to intervene in the vast majority of schools. The groups are worried that could mean that particular groups of students who they say were swept under the rug before the No Child Left Behind Act would again be overlooked.

Here’s the statement:

As representatives of the millions of students with disabilities, low-income students, students of color, English-language learners and migrant students who are studying in our nation's schools, both boys and girls, we cannot support the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act of 2011 at this time. The bill's weak accountability system excludes the vast majority of children we represent, and is a major barrier to our organizations' support.

The groups said they liked the parts of the bill that deal with college-and-career-ready standards and assessments, accountability for dropout factories, and the focus on mathematics, science, and technology education.

But, they added, under the bill:

States would not have to set any measurable achievement and progress targets or even graduation rate goals. They would be required to take action to improve only a small number of low-performing schools. In schools which aren't among the states' very worst-performing, huge numbers of low-achieving students will slip through the cracks. ... We respectfully believe that the bill goes too far in providing flexibility by marginalizing the focus on the achievement of disadvantaged students.

The groups added that they will be unable to support the bill in its current form, but they hope to work with Harkin and Enzi as it moves forward.

Who is on the letter? Here’s a full run-down: American Civil Liberties Union,
Business Coalition for Student Achievement,Chiefs for Change, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Democrats for Education Reform, The Education Trust,
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, League of United Latin American Citizens, MALDEF (the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., National Center for Learning Disabilities, National Down Syndrome Society, National Urban League, National Women’s Law Center, New Teachers Project, Poverty & Race Research Action Council, Southeast Asia Research and Action Center, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Who isn’t? The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are both members of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of organizations. But the unions are not part of the letter.

“We certainly agree with some of the concerns raised in the letter, but this is the beginning of a long reauthorization process,” said Kim Anderson, the director of the union’s center for advocacy. “There will be much more debate to come.”

The NEA released its own letter late last night that gave the legislation mixed reviews. It praised provisions of the law that would call for improved assessments for English-language learners and changes to the accountability system, including scrapping the law’s 2013-14 deadline for bringing all students to proficiency. The union is also happy about the fact that the bill now makes teacher evaluation an option, not a requirement.

But it still doesn’t like the bill’s turnaround options for the lowest-performing schools, which require teachers to be removed from struggling schools. And it’s still not a fan of the bill’s accountability provisions when it comes to charter schools.

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