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House Debates No Child Left Behind Rewrite, Makes Big Changes on Teacher Evaluation

By Alyson Klein — July 18, 2013 8 min read
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Conservative lawmakers won a big concession Thursday on the teacher-evaluation portion of a bill to renew the No Child Left Behind Act. Under the change, which was ultimately endorsed by the bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, states and school districts would not be required to craft teacher-evaluation systems based on student outcomes.

Instead, those evaluations—which are already causing headaches for states who have put them in place in exchange for the Obama administration’s waivers from the NCLB law—would be totally voluntary. It is almost certain that Kline threw in the towel on teacher evaluations—a policy he was personally passionate about—in order to win final passage of the bill. A vote is expected tomorrow. [UPDATE 7/19, 11:20 A.M.: The full bill passed the House on a partisan 221-207 vote. For more coverage of the debate and vote, see this post.]

The teacher-evaluation change was pushed by a pair of conservative Republicans—Reps. Rob Bishop, R-Utah and Steve Scalise, R-La.—who thought Kline’s original language went way too far in maintaining a federal role in K-12 education.

Under an amendment introduced by the duo, which was accepted by voice vote, teacher-evaluation systems that take student outcomes into account would be optional, not a requirement. The provision was endorsed by the National Education Association, but disparaged by a host of education redesign groups, who argued it would take the teeth out of the whole idea of holding teachers accountable for their students’ progress.

The revision makes the House Republican bill—which is expected to pass the House tomorrow with only GOP support—a much closer cousin to an NCLB rewrite bill introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the top lawmaker on the Senate education committee. During debate, House lawmakers also accepted a key amendment that would make it clear that school districts can use “multiple measures” (not just standardized tests) in assessing students.

And they agreed to an amendment that would express the “sense of Congress” that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan “coerced” states into adopting the common-core standards through the Race to the Top program.

Other interesting amendments meant to make political statements were withdrawn, including a provision by Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., that would allow states to opt out of federal accountability systems and return federal funding for education programs to taxpayers. (Garrett’s language has already been incorporated into the bill through a broad amendment by Kline.) Also withdrawn was an amendment by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash, which would have included much more stringent testing requirements for students with disabilities. (Kline promised he’d work with McMorris Rodgers, whose son has special needs, on the issue.)

So does this mean that ESEA reauthorization is actually going to pass this year? Don’t hold your breath. The process hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for Republican leaders. That could make conferencing with any Senate measure (which is likely to be written primarily by Democrats) tough.

Across the Capitol, the Senate education committee recently approved its own version of the ESEA; that bill is radically different from this one. The Senate version, which got only Democratic support in committee, is much closer to the administration’s vision for renewing the No Child Left Behind Act. It directs states to set ambitious goals for the achievement of all students—and specific subgroups of students—and includes renewals of key Obama programs, such as Race to the Top. It would also require states to craft educator evaluations based on student outcomes and use them for professional development and teacher distribution.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee and the author of the bill, said that he’d like to see the measure on the floor of the Senate this year. And Sen. Alexander, the top Republican on the panel, made it clear he’d be happy to go forward, too—even though he’s opposed to pretty much everything in the legislation and voted against it.

Here’s what Harkin had to say about the House measure:
He thinks the House bill “falls short” when it comes to holding states accountable for the success of disadvantaged children.

“It is important that any reauthorization of the ESEA remain true to the original intent of the law—to ensure that all children, particularly those who are disadvantaged, have access to the highest quality education,” Harkin said in a statement today.

Still, he added, “I am encouraged that there is movement in the House of Representatives to reauthorize ESEA and look forward to completing work on a full reauthorization [despite] significant differences between [the two bills] that will need to be reconciled.”

But the Senate floor schedule is crowded—and the administration hasn’t exactly been rushing to cheerlead the Harkin measure, a step that would help reauthorization. (The administration didn’t even put out a press release when it passed earlier this spring). Instead, the administration seems to be quietly in favor of letting its reauthorization solution (a series of waivers issued to nearly 40 states) take hold.

Back to the House bill, what does it actually do? The measure amounts to a major rollback of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, giving state and school districts much more leeway when it comes to improving low-performing schools and spending federal dollars. States would no longer have to set specific goals for student achievement, either for all kids or for specific often-overlooked groups of students (such as students in special education and English-language learners).

When it comes to money, the bill would lock in the across-the-board cuts to federal spending (including education) put in place under “sequestration.” That was a key Democratic talking point during floor debate.

And the bill would turn the Title I program for disadvantaged kids into a giant “block grant” of sorts, giving school districts the freedom to move federal dollars among programs for ELLs, neglected and delinquent children, rural students, and Indian children. Districts could use the funds for any activity authorized under those programs. No money could be transferred out of Title I schools, but extra funds could go to other low-income schools.

In a move that has angered even supporters of the bill, such as the American Association of School Administrators, the measure would get rid of “maintenance of effort”, the wonky name for the requirement that school districts and states keep up their own spending at particular levels in order to tap federal funds. AASA and other groups unsuccessfully tried to persuade lawmakers to allow for votes on amendments to reinstate maintenance of effort, but to no avail.

But, under the bill, states would have to set-aside 3 percent of their Title I funds for a competitive grant program that would allow districts to offer school choice or free tutoring.

The bill also would prohibit the U.S. Secretary of Education from imposing any conditions on states when it comes to standards and assessments, or from asking for any changes to state standards. (That appears to take direct aim at the requirement under waivers for states to adopt college- and career-ready standards.) And in fact, the bill specifically calls out the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia.

There are also no renewals for any of the Obama administration’s favorite grant programs, including Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, the School Improvement Grants, or Promise Neighborhoods.

What was the debate like? Kline—and other Republicans—emphasized that the bill would give states and districts greater flexibility and autonomy, not to mention predictability, unlike the administration’s waivers.

“We can’t allow these political waivers or temporary fixes,” Kline said. “We can’t stand idly by and allow the administration to micromanage our classrooms.”

Meanwhile, Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking member on the House education committee, said the bill would turn back the clock to the pre-No Child Left Behind era, when the poor performance of disadvantaged students, English-language learners, and minority kids often went unnoticed and unfixed, in his view.

“No Child Left Behind turned the lights on inside our nation’s schools,” said Miller, an architect of NCLB. “For the first time, parents could see whether their schools were actually teaching all students.” While he said the law has “flaws”, he thinks the GOP rewrite would ultimately hurt accountability for traditionally overlooked students.

Who supports this bill: The American Association of School Administrations—although AASA is not on board with an amendment to allow Title I funding to follow students to the public school of their choice. The National School Boards Association. Americans for Tax Reform (that’s Grover Norquist’s group). The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. More at House education committee’s website.

Sample endorsement: The bill “represents a common‐sense approach to federal policy, in large part because it balances the proper role of the federal government in education,” AASA writes.

Who is against the bill: The National Education Association. The American Federation of Teachers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Business Roundtable. The Education Trust. The National Council of La Raza. Teach Plus. Democrats for Education Reform. The National Center for Learning Disabilities. The Center for American Progress Action Fund. The Council of the Great City Schools. And there’s more on the House education Democrats’ website.

Sample anti-endorsement: The measure “abandons accountability for the achievement and learning gains of subgroups of disadvantaged students who for generations have been harmed by low academic expectations,” write 35 civil rights and business groups.