Clock Ticking on Senate Bill to Overhaul NCLB

By Alyson Klein — October 31, 2011 7 min read
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Leaders of the Senate education committee still aim to push a bipartisan revision of the much-criticized No Child Left Behind Act through Congress by year’s end, in time to stave off the Obama administration’s move to offer states waivers of parts of the nearly decade-old law.

That appears to be a tall order, given the short and crowded legislative calendar, polarized political climate, and lack of consensus within the K-12 community on issues—such as accountability and teacher quality—at the heart of the law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The next stop for the bill, sponsored by U.S. Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., is a hearing Nov. 8 before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

Despite a 15-7 committee vote Oct. 20 approving the bill, the measure to reauthorize the ESEA faces a range of opposition, much of it centering on changes to accountability provisions involving specific subgroups of students, including minorities, English-language learners, and students with disabilities.

Renewal Debate, Side by Side

The bill reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act approved by the Senate education committee contrasts with current law and with the Obama administration’s vision for overhauling the No Child Left Behind Act. It also contrasts with various pieces of legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

SOURCE: Michele McNeil

Civil rights groups, some state schools chiefs, and business leaders are concerned that those changes would amount to a watering down of the core goals of the NCLB law, which sought to shine a spotlight on groups of students whose lagging achievement was often masked by higher performance overall at the school or district level. The Obama administration has also expressed concerns about how the Senate bill deals with accountability.

“Increased flexibility at the state and local level is consistent with the administration’s policy on waivers,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an Oct. 17 blog post on the Department of Education’s website. “However, it is equally important that we maintain a strong commitment to accountability for the success of all students, and I am concerned that the Senate bill does not go far enough.”

For their part, GOP lawmakers are likely to seek changes further scaling back the federal role in education, including stripping language from the bill that would require states to focus on schools with the largest achievement gaps among students in various subgroups and their peers.

Floor Obstacles

But the Senate legislation also is garnering praise from some advocates who were initially skeptical.

The American Association of School Administrators, which less than two weeks ago urged Congress to slow down on reauthorization, is now pleased with the direction the legislation is taking, said Noelle Ellerson, the group’s assistant director for policy and advocacy, although the AASA has not endorsed the measure.

“We like the way it’s going,” Ms. Ellerson said. In particular, she gave a thumbs-up to the legislation’s focus on the bottom 5 percent of schools in terms of student achievement, and its plan to scrap the NCLB law’s signature yardstick—adequate yearly progress, or AYP—in favor of allowing states to show still-to-be determined “continuous improvement” in student outcomes.

But if lawmakers try to get the measure on the floor of the Senate before Christmas, they will face a major time crunch.

Members of Congress are struggling to reach agreement on a series of spending bills for fiscal year 2012, which started Oct. 1.

And the so-called “supercommittee,” a bipartisan panel of 12 lawmakers tasked with making long-term recommendations for the nation’s fiscal health, is slated to present its plan to Congress before Thanksgiving. Those proposals are expected to set in motion a fierce battle over budget-deficit reductions, which could eat up even more time in the legislative calendar.

Some political analysts see the potential for the ESEA legislation to hit President Barack Obama’s desk before December 2012.

“There are not huge policy differences on the major issues” among Senate lawmakers, said Vic Klatt, a longtime aide to Republicans on the House education committee who now serves as a principal at Penn Hill Group, a government-relations firm in Washington. “You can see a path to getting this bill done within this [session of Congress]. The question is whether they can work out the politics.”

If and when senators take up the ESEA reauthorization bill, debate is certain to include issues central to K-12 educators—including accountability for student achievement, ways of increasing teacher quality, and methods of turning around poorly performing schools.

But Charlie Barone, the director of federal legislation for Democrats for Education Reform, a political action group based in New York City, said it could also get bogged down in issues that many may consider tangential to the ESEA, including school prayer, condom distribution in schools, and military recruitment on campus. Mr. Barone is opposed to the ESEA legislation.

“There’s all types of monkey business when an education bill comes to the floor,” Mr. Barone said. That prospect might make Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, reluctant to bring the measure up for a vote, said Mr. Barone, who served as an aide to Rep. George Miller, the top Democrat on the House education committee, when the NCLB law was drafted in 2001.


Like a measure approved by the House education committee earlier this year, and like the Obama administration’s own ESEA reauthorization proposal, the measure approved last month by the Senate committee would seek to consolidate a number of Education Department programs.

In place of smaller, more targeted programs, the bill would create broad baskets of funding aimed at improving high schools, boosting literacy instruction, and bolstering student health and safety.

The literacy language, in particular, would provide for comprehensive instruction beginning in early childhood. That would help refocus the federal role in reading, which has been lacking since the elimination of funding for NCLB’s troubled Reading First program, said Susan Frost, a former Education Department adviser during the Clinton administration, who now serves as a vice president at the Sheridan Group, a Washington government-affairs firm.

Overall, the Harkin-Enzi legislation would eliminate authorizations for more than a dozen programs, including education of gifted and talented students, Ready to Teach, and character education.

During committee consideration, Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., added language that would create a fund aimed at providing grants to states to improve financial literacy, foreign-language instruction, environmental education, and other subjects. The “Well-Rounded” fund would consolidate such programs as Teaching American History, Foreign Language Assistance, and Excellence in Economic Education.

Lawmakers also added language authorizing Educational Technology State Grants, which help states provide professional development for teachers in using technology.

The program tally is likely to spark debate as the bill moves forward, said Joel Packer, a principal with the Raben Group, a government-relations organization in Washington.

“The mood is that we should be consolidating programs, streamlining programs, having more-flexible programs,” Mr. Packer said. “Once programs are added, it makes things more difficult, particularly on the Republican side. I think there’s going to be a lot of counting how many programs are repealed and how many new areas we’re concentrating on.”

Obama Priorities

The Senate bill would add new authorizations for the Obama administration’s big education redesign initiatives, including the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grant programs. Those programs are likely to be top targets for lawmakers trying to slim down the federal Education Department. The measure also would eliminate a number of smaller programs—such as the Even Start Family Literacy program—that lost their funding in the fiscal 2011 spending bill.

But the bill does include detailed language that describes politically connected programs that lost their funding in the fiscal 2011 appropriations process, making them eligible for new grants. For instance, the bill includes language stating thatfederal money can go to programs that distribute inexpensive books to low-income children, a spot-on description of the mission of Reading Is Fundamental, which lost its $25 million federal grant earlier this year.

House Action

Meanwhile, members of the House of Representatives are taking a different tack, breaking reauthorization into bite-size pieces. U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is still working with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle on legislation dealing with accountability and teacher quality, said Alexandra Sollberger, his spokeswoman. Rep. Kline is hoping the committee will consider that measure in the coming weeks, she added. The full House has approved only one bill, which would aim to make it easier to scale up charter schools with proven records of success.

And the House education committee has approved two other bills. One would eliminate more than 40 programs in the Education Department; the other would permit districts to transfer money into—or out of—nearly every federal K-12 program, including Title I grants for disadvantaged students.

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as Clock Ticks On Senate ESEA Plan


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