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Education Panel Floats Common Themes on ESEA

By Alyson Klein — February 22, 2011 3 min read
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Republican leaders and Democrats on the newly named House Education and the Workforce Committee seem to be heading toward a broad consensus that the federal government should call on states and districts to set a high bar for student achievement—then step aside and let them take the lead.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were singing a similar tune this month, at the first hearing specifically on education by the panel now controlled by Republicans. In fact, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the new chairman of the committee, joked at the start of the Feb. 10 hearing that he and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the ranking member, could have exchanged opening statements.

Mr. Kline’s speech included the line: “State and local communities are moving forward with innovative solutions to improve accountability, parent involvement, results-based hiring, and school choice. Washington should not stand in the way of these and other meaningful reforms that improve the quality of education for our children.”

And Mr. Miller kicked off by saying, “We must give greater flexibility at the local level in exchange for setting high goals for all children and less prescription at the federal level.”

Other witnesses echoed the theme, including Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett.

“The federal role is just to say that states have done a good job setting their standards. Set the bar high. If we don’t do the job, don’t give us the money, ... and please get out of our way,” said Mr. Bennett. He even acknowledged state leaders’ role in keeping standards low. “It’s folks like me that haven’t held up their end of the bargain.”

The only witness selected by Rep. Miller—Ted Mitchell, the president of the NewSchools Venture Fund, a philanthropy based in San Francisco—outlined a few specific areas where he thinks there is a smart role for the federal government. They include tracking results for student groups that are often overlooked, such as English-language learners and students in special education, and investing in programs that encourage innovation, such as charter schools. Providing incentive grants for innovation gives reformers political cover, he said.

Missing Perspectives

But there was no one at the witness table championing the traditional Democratic stance on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, embraced by teachers’ unions and many practitioners. Generally, such groups are skeptical of relying on high-stakes standardized testing as the primary vehicle for gauging teacher and school performance. And they favor investments in support services, such as health and counseling.

Support from that corner of the political spectrum may not matter as much in the House, where Republicans could pass a bill without significant Democrat help. But it will be important in the Senate, which remains under Democratic control.

During the hearing, Republican lawmakers were particularly enamored with a chart that Andrew J. Coulson, the director of the Washington-based Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, brought along. He asserted that the federal government has spent $2 trillion on education over the past half-century, with nothing to show for it in terms of student results.

It was also clear that the new Republican members of the committee are still getting up to speed on K-12 policy. They asked questions on issues such as teacher retention and one about whether school districts can save money and boost student achievement by cutting back transportation costs and making more parents drive their children to school.

But there were very few questions from the freshmen on aspects of the administration’s blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or programs like Race to the Top.

For instance, Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind., a heart surgeon, said in an interview that he’s still getting acquainted with provisions of the ESEA law, such as the requirement to test students in grades 3 through 8, and the idea of teacher effectiveness. But his bottom-line philosophy, which most of his colleagues seem to share, is that while the goals of the current version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, are admirable, “education should be locally-driven and state-driven.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as House Panel Floats Common Themes on ESEA Renewal

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