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Federal K-12 Footprint at Core of ESEA Hearing

By Alyson Klein — February 17, 2012 4 min read
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Congressional lawmakers in charge of overseeing the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act are deeply divided on the right role for the federal government in K-12 education, a split on display at Thursday’s hearing on a pair of bills before the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

The measures, introduced Feb. 9 by the committee’s chairman, U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., would significantly scale back the federal role in overseeing K-12 policy, leaving nearly all accountability decisions up to the states. They have yet to garner Democrat support.

Schools would still test students in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, but the bills would get rid of the adequate yearly progress provision at the center of the law and allow states to craft their own accountability systems. States would be able to come up with their own improvement strategies and decide which schools to turn around. And states wouldn’t have to offer free tutoring or school choice for students in schools that are struggling.

At a hearing on the bills Feb. 16, Tom Luna, Idaho’s superintendent of public instruction and the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, argued that states are moving forward on sweeping education redesign without the federal government’s help.

“States have demonstrated that, without being compelled by the federal government, they’ve adopted higher academic standards than they have in the past,” Mr. Luna said, referring to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which all but four states have adopted and are now trying to implement. “Without any compulsion from the federal government, there’s a renaissance going on around the country in education reform.”

But Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the panel, said Mr. Kline’s legislation would take away very important federal protections, particularly for specific subgroups of students, such as English-language learners and students in special education. The No Child Left Behind Act, of which the ESEA is the current incarnation, “turned on the lights” when it came to how those students were performing relative to their peers, he said.

“The federal government plays a critical role here,” Rep. Miller said. “It can create guardrails to ensure equity. It can ensure that, when states, districts, and schools have to make hard decisions, those decisions are not made on the backs of children.”

Alternate Approaches

Rep. Kline’s measures aren’t the only bills seeking to reauthorize the ESEA. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee also approved a bill last fall to renew the law, with some Republican support.

But there are various approaches being pushed on how to overhaul the NCLB law, widely seen as outdated and broken in key respects. For example, the House bills would require states and districts to evaluate teachers, using student performance as a significant factor. That’s something the Obama administration also wants to see in the reauthorization.

Such language isn’t in the Senate bill, however. And it was Republicans such as U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming who argued against it. They see mandating teacher evaluation as the wrong role for the federal government. The 3.2 million-member National Education Association also is vehemently against the evaluation language.

But Felicia Kazmier, an art teacher from Otero Elementary School, in Colorado’s 10,000-student Harrison School District Two, which is considered a national pioneer in using student achievement to inform evaluation systems, testified in support of the idea at Thursday’s House hearing.

“As a good teacher, what do you have to fear” from an evaluation system? she asked.

School Improvement

Another key question facing lawmakers: Should there be a role for the federal government when it comes to school improvement? Rep. Kline’s legislation would zero out the federal School Improvement Grant program, which offers states resources for turning around their lowest-performing schools. The program, which requires participating schools to choose one of four improvement models, has been criticized for being too prescriptive.

Getting rid of some federal responsibility for fixing the lowest-achieving schools is not the right way to go, argued one witness at the hearing.

States and districts are making some progress in turning around the nation’s lowest-performing schools, thanks in part to the SIG program, although it has its flaws, said Robert Balfanz, the co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. The Kline bills “take the foot off the gas,” when it comes to school improvement, he said.

Rep. Kline said he would like the committee to consider the legislation in the next couple of weeks, although the fate of reauthorization in a highly polarized Congress during this presidential election year remains murky.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Federal K-12 Footprint at Core of ESEA Hearing

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