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GOP Senators Introduce Own ESEA Renewal Bills

By Alyson Klein — September 14, 2011 7 min read

A group of key U.S. Senate Republicans—led by Sen. Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, a former U.S. secretary of education—are going their own way on reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Back in January, the top lawmakers on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee pledged to work together on a bipartisan, comprehensive bill to fix the NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But almost eight months later, those talks haven’t resulted in a bill.

Sens. Alexander, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, and Mark Kirk of Illinois, unveiled a series of four proposals aimed at renewing pieces of the law.

Sen. Alexander’s bill would “clarify” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s waiver authority. Secretary Duncan announced this summer that he would offer states flexibility on parts of the ESEA, in exchange for the states embracing certain education reform priorities. The waiver rules are expected to be unveiled this month.

At a Sept. 14 briefing on Capitol Hill, Sen. Alexander said that he supports the secretary granting waivers from certain requirements of the NCLB law “based on what states have asked for.” But he doesn’t want to see the secretary spell out for states what they have to do in areas such as teacher evaluation.

“If by doing waivers, the secretary tries to do through waivers what he can’t do through the Congress, I would object to that,” Sen. Alexander said. “If he’s trying to recognize that states have really good programs that enhance student achievement, I think that’s fine.”

Daren Briscoe, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, later said of the forthcoming waiver process, “We think we have a very fair, transparent process while ensuring continued rigorous accountability and improvement.”

Hoping for Agreement

Sen. Alexander insisted that the bills aren’t an indication that senators will not support Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and the top Republican, Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, in their ESEA renewal efforts.

Sen. Harkin had initially hoped to introduce a bipartisan, comprehensive bill by spring 2011, but that legislation never materialized.

But Sen. Harkin said that the discussions with Sen. Enzi have been fruitful.

“We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress,” he said. “In my view, we have agreement on all but a few issues for a comprehensive reauthorization. I remain hopeful that Sen. Enzi and I can resolve these and present a comprehensive bill to our fellow committee members. A piecemeal approach will not provide our nation’s children, teachers, principals, and schools with the reform they need.”

Sen. Enzi supports the efforts of Sen. Alexander and the others, but will also continue working with Sen. Harkin on a bipartisan plan, an Enzi aide said.

“We’re moving ahead on two tracks,” Sen. Alexander said. The bills just unveiled, he said, are a chance for the Republicans to spur the process and outline their own vision for renewing the law. He said the differences between the two sides boiled down to just what the scope of the federal role should be in fixing schools.

But others see a political motivation in the timing of the bills’ introduction. A House Democratic aide familiar with the ESEA reauthorization process said the Senate GOP lawmakers timed the release to coincide closely with the introduction of Secretary Duncan’s waiver plan.

Senate Republicans are “continuing to play politics with education policy, and not doing anything serious for kids,” the aide said. The move is “fully in line” with the GOP’s desire not to give Obama a victory on education, the Democratic aide argued.

Smaller Pieces

The Senate Republicans have broken reauthorization of the ESEA into smaller bills. The general topics seem to closely mirror those that U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, is working on through a piecemeal reauthorization process in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The bills reflect much of the administration’s blueprint for renewing the ESEA law, released in March of 2010, Sen. Alexander said.

“Many of the ideas here are completely consistent with what Secretary Duncan and the president have proposed,” Sen. Alexander said.

Alex Nock, who until recently served as a top aide for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the ranking member of the House education committee, sees a lot of common ground between the GOP proposal and the Obama blueprint. Mr. Nock, now the executive vice president of Penn Hill Group, a government-relations firm in Washington, said those similarities could limit the scope of policy prescriptions under discussion.

“Due to the bills’ similarities to the administrations’ blueprint, [the package] could force the political discourse on ESEA to narrow,” he said.

Vic Klatt, a former aide to Republicans on the House education committee, said the commonalities have left him wondering why Congress hasn’t been able to complete reauthorization.

“It sort of leads to the question of what is taking these guys so long. They’re not that far off,” said Mr. Klatt, who is now a principal at Penn Hill Group. “There are not that many huge differences here that can’t be resolved.”

But he added that he doesn’t expect to see ESEA reauthorized this year. “It’s too late in the process for ESEA to get through the Senate this year even if suddenly everything were to fall into place tomorrow,” he said.

Details Emerge

One bill, sponsored by Sens. Isakson and Alexander, would make changes to the Title I program, the main federal program for disadvantaged students. It would keep NCLB’s annual schedule of testing students in grades 3 through 8 in reading and math, and once in high school. It also would require states to keep reporting on results for different groups of students, such as racial minorities, English-language learners, and students with disabilities.

States would be required to adopt “college- and career-ready” standards that are aligned with state post-secondary, career and technical, and workforce skills.

But there is no language encouraging states to embrace a specific set of academic standards, such as those put forward in the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which more than 40 states have endorsed.

The federal government would continue to support interventions in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools through a menu of improvement models largely consistent with the four options the administration created for the School Improvement Grant program. The measure would add two additional options to the mix, including one aimed at broadening remedies for rural schools.

But the Title I bill would let states decide how to label and intervene in the other 95 percent of schools.

Mr. Isakson said the teeth of the proposed legislation lie in the continued requirement to report on student progress.

“The hammer is transparency,” he said.

Another bill would effectively scrap the law’s “highly qualified teacher” provision, which spells out that teachers must be certified in their subject area. Instead, states would have to come up with their own evaluation systems. The measure also would authorize the Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants to districts to create pay-for-performance programs. The TIF has been receiving funding since fiscal year 2006, but has never been officially written into the ESEA law.

Another measure, modeled on a bill that passed the House on Sept. 13, would bolster charter schools. And a fourth bill would consolidate 59 federal education programs into two flexible funding streams.

Early Reaction

The package got a good initial review from Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy for the American Association of School Administrators.

She said the AASA is still examining the details of the legislation. But she likes the direction the senators are heading.

“They are really taking a step toward trusting the ability of states and locals” to improve student achievement, she said. “The best education policy doesn’t always come straight from the Beltway.”

But Kate Tromble, the director of legislative affairs for the Education Trust, in Washington, which advocates for poor and minority students, said, “The last thing our country or our children need right now is to roll back hard-won progress in education reform and student achievement, particularly for low-income students and students of color. But that’s exactly what these bills would do.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2011 edition of Education Week as GOP Senators Propose Own ESEA Renewal Bills


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