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ESEA Bill Gets Day in Sun at Senate Hearing

By Alyson Klein — November 08, 2011 4 min read
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Today’s much-anticipated hearing on a Senate bill to make over the No Child Left Behind Act had one of the bill’s chief sponsors casting it as an important but imperfect compromise, while Republicans saying the bill wouldn’t do enough to rein in the federal role in education.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said that a comprehensive, bipartisan bill that passed out of his committee last month is a step in the right direction, even if it doesn’t please everyone.

“This bill that we have will not solve every problem in elementary and secondary education. ... No bill has everything everybody wants,” Harkin said of the bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the top Republican on the panel. The central question, he said: “Does it advance the cause of finding proper balances between federal, state, and local?”

The bill would overhaul the NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It was approved by the Senate committee on Oct. 20, and a floor vote has not yet been scheduled.

The Obama administration has been quietly critical of the bill’s handling of two key issues: accountability and teacher evaluation. But Harkin said today those decisions were the result of the need for bipartisan compromise with Enzi.

“The administration can say those things,” he told reporters. “They never had to negotiate with anyone to get those waivers"—a reference to the administration’s system for giving states wiggle room on key pieces of the NCLB law, but only if states advance certain reform priorities.

It’s unusual for a congressional committee to hold a hearing on a bill it’s already passed. But during last month’s markup on the bill, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., threatened to slow down the process of committee consideration unless the panel held a hearing that included the folks who would implement the law, such as teachers, principals, and school superintendents.

Paul wasn’t much of a firebrand during the hearing, though. Instead, he reiterated his view that the federal government should stay out of K-12 policy.

“The farther we get away from the local school board, the worse it gets,” said the Kentucky senator. And he said he is “concerned that we still have a testing mandate. I don’t think we fixed that.”

Based on comments at the hearing, it sounds like other Republicans may be seeking changes to the bill if and when it gets to the Senate floor. Enzi said he would like to see “a much smaller federal role” in education and “fewer programs” and was sorry that “the markup moved in the opposite direction.”

The hearing was done in a roundatable format. Witnesses were asked to explain which parts of the bill they particularly liked and which parts they thought needed work.

Jon Schnur, co-founder and chairman of the board for New Leaders, a non-profit that helps train principals to work in underperforming schools, said he thought the committee should consider a big incentive for developing evaluation systems. One possibility could be to make at least half of Title II funding (the nearly $2.5 billion that states get each year for teacher quality) competitive instead of given out by formula.

Elmer Thomas, the principal at Madison Central High School in Richmond, Ky., said he was glad to see the committee was “getting rid of punative [Adequate Yearly Progress] sanctions.

A broad coalition of civil right and business groups is opposed to the legislation. They were represented at the hearing by Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Henderson called the bill “a historic retreat from accountability.”

After the hearing, a Senate aide sought to counter some of those claims, pointing to language in the bill that makes it clear that states must submit accountability plans that address subgroup success. The main difference between the bill and current law is that there wouldn’t be a federal system of labeling schools, or federally spelled-out interventions.

That balance works for Tom Luna, the state superintendent in Idaho, who also happens to be the president-elect of the Council of Chief State School Officers. Idaho has embraced some major changes lately, including on teacher quality, merit-pay, and technology initiatives—all without federal involvement, Luna said in an interview after the hearing.

“I think the reauthorization keeps the good parts of the No Child Left Behind Act,” he said, including the focus on disaggregating data for all students, while including some positive changes, such as growth models, which allow states to measure individual student progress.

He said he thinks the scaling back of the federal role is the right move. “I don’t think it’s a question of whether states can step up. I think they’ve proven that they have.”

And Luna added that he’d rather see an honest-to-goodness reauthorization in place of waivers. “Reauthorization is long term,” he said.

Photo: Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., left, huddles with Sen. Lamar Alexander R-Tenn., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, right, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, during the Nov. 8 hearing on a Senate bill to make over the No Child Left Behind Act. (Andrew Councill for Education Week)

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