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House ESEA Draft Would Reduce Federal School Role

By Alyson Klein — January 10, 2012 7 min read
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House Republicans released two draft bills that would significantly scale back the federal role in K-12 schools and go further than any other proposal yet to dismantle the accountability tenets at the heart of the decade-old No Child Left Behind Act.

The measures, put forth by U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee last week, take some of the same steps as a bipartisan Senate rewrite of NCLB—and the Obama administration’s own vision for rewriting the law. Like those proposals, the Republican bills would entirely scrap the law’s signature yardstick, adequate yearly progress, or AYP, while largely keeping NCLB’s current testing schedule in place. (“Obama Outlines NCLB Flexibility,” September 28, 2011.)

However, the proposals take sharply different turns in other areas. They would, for example, significantly water down the federal role in intervening in schools, including the lowest performers, and would grant broad funding flexibility to districts.

In renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which NCLB is the latest version, the drafts would:

• Require districts to craft teacher evaluations based in part on student outcomes, and use them in personnel decisions;

• Eliminate tutoring and school choice requirements under NCLB;

• Retain the law’s testing regime in math and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school, but eliminate science as a required subject;

• Get rid of the law’s requirement that teachers be “highly qualified,” or required to demonstrate they are competent in the subject they are teaching and be state-certified;

• Limit how much money could be spent on class-size reduction.

And unlike on the Senate side, where U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, was able to get support from three Republicans for his NCLB rewrite, the House vision is a Republican-only affair. Rep. Kline had been negotiating with Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the panel, but the two were unable to reach agreement.

The scope of the federal role in education was the source of the conflict, Rep. Kline said Jan. 5 on former Education Secretary Bill Bennett’s radio program “Morning in America.”

“Democrats are reluctant to let go of the power of the secretary of education,” the committee chairman said. “We do agree that the law needs to be changed.”

But, if Rep. Kline is unable to attract Democratic support for the measure, it may not get very far. Sen. Harkin said last year that he does not want to move his committee’s ESEA reauthorization proposal to the floor unless he sees a bipartisan product out of the House.

The House proposal would retain the law’s requirement to test students in reading and mathematics in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. And it would require schools to continue to break out data to show how special populations of students—such as English-language learners, children in poverty, and racial minorities—are doing relative to their peers.

But states would no longer have to test students in science—a subject that is required under the NCLB law but does not have to be used to measure AYP.

And under the measure, states would get to craft their own accountability systems. That general principle largely jibes with a bill that passed the Senate education committee with bipartisan support, and with the administration’s plan to offer states waivers from pieces of the NCLB law in exchange for embracing certain reform priorities. But the waiver package required states to continue to set annual goals for student achievement, which is not called for under the House or Senate proposals.

The House proposal also would go much further than the Senate and the administration’s waiver package in dismantling the federal role in intervening in struggling schools—essentially gutting it.

Under both the House and Senate proposals, states would get to cook up their own remedies for many schools that aren’t making progress. And both proposals would get rid of the requirement that states allow students in underperforming schools to transfer to better schools or get free tutoring.

But the House would scrap the School Improvement Grant program, which calls on states to use a very specific set of interventions—including removing the principal and getting rid of some teachers—in schools that are in the bottom 5 percent for student achievement. The state wouldn’t have to focus on fixing a certain percentage of schools under the House bill.

And, unlike the Senate bill, the House wouldn’t require states to figure out a plan for the 5 percent of schools with persistent achievement gaps. That’s also a difference from the administration’s waiver package, which calls for states to figure out a plan for their bottom 5 percent of schools, and for another 10 percent of schools that are struggling.

Standards Debate

The House measure also takes a different tack than the Senate when it comes to academic standards. The House bill would not require states to set “college-and-career standards"—a major aim of both the Senate bill and a marquee goal of the Obama administration.

Under both the Senate bill and the administration’s waiver package, states would have to develop standards that would prepare students to take credit-bearing courses at post-secondary institutions, or for a career. The House proposal supports those aims.

But under the House proposal, the secretary of education would be barred from doing anything to encourage states to craft more uniform, rigorous standards. That would seem to take aim at U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan’s decision to give a leg up in the Race to the Top competition to states that worked together to set standards. It also would seem to rebuff the department’s move to make adoption of college- and career-ready standards a key feature of its waiver package.

The House proposal also would make big changes when it comes to funding flexibility for schools. It would eliminate the requirement known as maintenance of effort, which calls for states and school districts to keep up their own financing for education at a certain level in order to tap federal funds.

And the legislation would provide significant new funding flexibility for districts that want to transfer money aimed at one special population—such as English-language learners—to another.

The measure would merge programs aimed at migrant students, neglected and delinquent children, English-language learners, rural students, and Indian children, into the biggest K-12 program, the Title I program for disadvantaged 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.

And, under a second proposal, states would be required to reserve a certain portion of funding to support state and local programs outside of the traditional public school system, such as tutoring and after-school programs.

Teacher Issues

But in at least one area—teacher evaluations—the second House draft appears to carve out a broader role for the federal government than the Senate bill does.

The House proposal would scrap the law’s highly qualified teacher requirement, which requires teachers to have content expertise in their subjects, and call for districts to craft teacher-evaluation systems that would rely in significant part on student achievement, although other measures could also be included. Districts would have to use the evaluations to inform personnel decisions. And districts would have to come up with more than two categories for rating teachers.

The Senate bill, on the other hand, doesn’t make teacher evaluations a requirement for every district, just for those that want to get competitive grants from the Race to the Top or the Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides money for performance pay.

And the House measure would make a major change to how states spend roughly $2.5 billion a year in federal funding for teacher quality. Right now, states have broad flexibility to spend that money on professional development, reducing class size, and other activities. But, under the proposal, just 10 percent of funds could go to class-size reduction.

This isn’t the first reauthorization measure that the House education committee has put forward. The panel has taken somewhat of a piecemeal approach to reauthorizing the law. Last year, the committee approved a partisan bill that would have scrapped more than 40 K-12 programs. And it approved another funding flexibility measure, which got support only from Republicans.

So far, there’s been just one bipartisan piece of legislation. The full House approved a bill that would allow states to tap federal funds to replicate charter school models that have a track record of success.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2012 edition of Education Week as House ESEA Draft Would Reduce Federal School Role

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