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Details Emerge on Senate ESEA Discussions

By Alyson Klein — October 07, 2011 3 min read
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U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, is putting the finishing touches on a bill to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. He has been negotiating on the proposal with Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wy, the top GOP lawmaker on the committee, for months.

The draft legislative language isn’t scheduled to be released until next week, so many of the details remain fluid.

But, at least at the 10,000 foot-level, the proposals under discussion look a lot like the Obama administration’s long-standing blueprint for reauthorizing the law and the NCLB waiver package it released last month. And they have a lot in common with the Senate GOP bill introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and others. So lawmakers seem to have a good deal of common ground.

Lawmakers are aiming to release a discussion draft next week, and to mark up a bill Oct. 18. Sen. Enzi continues to work with Sen. Harkin and is anticipating a bipartisan markup of the ESEA language, an Enzi aide said.

Like the waiver package and the Alexander bill, many of the proposals under discussion represent a signficant departure from current law. They would put most of the federal focus on schools that are struggling the most, leaving states to decide what happens when it comes to student achievement in the vast majority of schools, including for particular subgroups of students.

Here are some proposals outlined in one draft version of the measure being circulated around Washington:

On Accountability:

• States would not have to set hard-and-fast performance targets, and there would be no end-game in mind akin to the 2013-14 deadline for student proficiency in the current law, or even the 2020 “goal” in the administration’s blueprint, released in March 2010. Instead, schools would have to show “continuous improvement” for all students, and for particular subgroups, such as English-language learners and students in special education.

If that proposal makes it into the final bill, state and local officials likely will be exchanging high-fives, since that would give them much of the flexibility they’re looking for. But civil rights groups could be concerned about the fact that there wouldn’t be specific achievement targets.

On Standards:

• States would have to adopt college-and-career-ready standards in reading, language arts, and math. Those standards would have to be sufficient to prepare students for credit-bearing courses in college and would have to match up with state career and technical education standards. States could do this on their own, or as part of a consortium—no need to join the Common Core Standards Initiative, although nearly all states already have. There would be no need to submit standards to the U.S. Department of Education for approval.

• States would have to set English-language proficiency standards. States would also have to adopt college-and-career-ready science standards. That’s similar to current law, Senate Democratic and Republican aides say, and reflects the nationwide movement to setting more rigorous standards.

On school improvement:

• Interventions in the vast majority of schools would be left up to the state. But states would have to designate the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in two main categories: high schools, elementary, and middle schools. High schools with a high dropout rate would also be included.

• Schools designated as lowest-performing would be subject to intensive interventions that look somewhat similar to the options now offered under the regulations for the School Improvement Grant program. But lawmakers are aiming to give states flexibility in implementing each of those models. And there could be additional options designed to mirror best practices at the state and local level.

• There would be another category of schools singled out for extra attention. States would have also identify schools with the largest achievement gaps. Those schools would have to develop plans for addressing their issues.

On high-performing schools:

• Like the administration’s blueprint, the committee is contemplating offering rewards to the highest-performing schools.