Congress Takes Up Debate on Accountability

By Joetta L. Sack — June 16, 1999 3 min read

“Accountability” has become a watchword in recent years for state legislators looking for ways to revamp K-12 education and hold schools, educators, and students responsible for showing results.

Now, Congress is trying to figure out how the sometimes murky term will figure in legislation at the federal level to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“People are still thinking a lot about it yet,” Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat who sits on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in an interview shortly after a subcommittee hearing on accountability last week.

President Clinton has packed his ESEA proposal with broad-reaching accountability measures for schools. Among other provisions, his plan would link federal aid for disadvantaged students to new requirements for states and districts. (“Clinton ESEA Plan Targets Accountability,” May 26, 1999. )

But so far, that proposal has met with criticism from congressional Republicans and skepticism from some education lobbyists, who say it’s unclear how it would be implemented.

And while some observers have speculated that much of Mr. Clinton’s plan will be dismissed by GOP lawmakers, Becky Campoverde, a spokeswoman for the Republicans on the House committee, said the panel’s staff was looking at his and other proposals in writing a plan that would give more flexibility to states.

“The goals are quite similar; it’s how you reach them,” she said. “We have a clear picture of what [accountability] doesn’t mean.”

In the Senate, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is also considering a wide range of proposals, and will likely release its omnibus ESEA legislation next month. If, as in past years, Republicans propose combining many precollegiate programs into a block grant, they expect Senate Democrats to attempt to attach an accountability measure to it, said Joe Karpinski, a spokesman for the Republicans on the HELP Committee.

Looking to States

The House committee’s Republicans, meanwhile, are writing a separate bill, called “Straight A’s” or “Super Ed-Flex,” that would give states much greater flexibility in using federal aid in exchange for certain accountability guarantees. The bill is expected to be released this month. House education leaders have turned to state officials for guidance, noting that most standards-based reform has taken place in the states.

Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin testifies at a House hearing on accountability. The Republican governor proposed that states be given incentives to create high-performing schools.
--Benjamin Tice Smith

During the House K-12 subcommittee’s hearing on June 9, two Republican state officeholders, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson and Florida Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan--the state’s former education commissioner--pushed for more state control of federal dollars while touting their states’ school reform plans.

“Mandating accountability without flexibility means more paperwork and bureaucracy,” said Mr. Thompson, who proposed that states be given incentives to produce high-performing schools and districts. In addition, needy parents whose children attend low-performing schools should be offered the chance to switch to other schools, and other states should be allowed to experiment with voucher systems similar to those in Milwaukee and a newly adopted plan in Florida, Mr. Thompson said.

To evaluate schools and districts, lawmakers should look at student assessments, attendance, graduation rates, and SAT and ACT scores, he added.

Some subcommittee members were impressed with the reform models presented by the state leaders.

“It’s a breath of fresh air to see what’s going on in communities, while we’re sitting here arguing over programs of a generation ago,” said Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis.

Others, though, appeared skeptical of broad-based plans that give states wide leeway for using federal dollars.

“We’ve really got to have a system that’s accountable for every student,” Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said during the hearing.

Amy Wilkins, a senior associate with the Washington-based Education Trust, said her group was happy that accountability measures are up for debate this year, but believes that lawmakers will have to move beyond political posturing and produce a bill.

Furthermore, Ms. Wilkins added, the current ESEA law gives plenty of flexibility to states--as evidenced by the governors’ testimony about the innovative reform programs already in place. The Education Trust, a nonprofit group that promotes high standards and equity in education, opposes the House Republicans’ Straight A’s measure.

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 1999 edition of Education Week as Congress Takes Up Debate on Accountability


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