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Federal Opinion

Seven Observations on ESEA Reauthorization

By Rick Hess — January 12, 2015 4 min read
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So, contrary to what I would’ve expected just three months ago, the ESEA/NCLB reauthorization train is off and running. (Just goes to show why my predictions are not especially useful.) Our earnest Secretary of Education is going to give a speech today in which he’ll try to lay down some markers, but the real action is all in the hands of Hill Republicans. As this thing races forward, here are seven things to keep in mind.

Transparency, Yes; Micromanagement, No: Despite all the fussing, the template for reauthorization is already looking pretty clear. In fact, the path to a more sensible law has been apparent for a while now—heck, Linda Darling-Hammond and I penned a NYT piece back in 2011 that sketched a simple, lean alternative to the overstuffed Harkin-Enzi Senate bill. The idea is that we hold fast to the federal commitment to regular testing and transparency, while jettisoning all the well-intended (but goofy and destructive) efforts to have the federal government judge school performance or prescribe interventions for school improvement. That’s a formula that looks a lot like the Student Success Act that passed the House in 2013.

This is Not a “Retreat": We’re going to hear repeatedly that the federal government must not “retreat” from No Child Left Behind. Well, NCLB was a whole bunch of things—it’s a telephone book-sized law. Some of the stuff, like the notion that federal officials could write rules that provide the proper formula for telling states how to identify and deal with schools “in need of improvement,” turned out to be goofy. Revamping or dumping those provisions isn’t a “retreat,” it’s just a bout of good sense. One huge caveat here: please, please, please note that getting the federal government out of school labeling and interventions doesn’t mean one is “anti-accountability.” It means that one believes the proper and appropriate place for those decisions is with state and local officials, who are much closer to the schools in question. And, if it means that some states opt for less test-based, punitive, or assertive models of accountability, that’s kind of how things work in a free country.

It’s an Open Question How Many Tests the Feds Should Require for Transparency: The big debate will be over exactly how much testing the feds ought to encourage in the name of transparency. The high side would hold the line on the NCLB formula, which requires reading and math in grades 3-8 and again in high school, and science once at each level of schooling. That’s 17 tests. The low end would probably look something like what President Clinton proposed back in ‘94, which was reading and math tests once in elementary, once in middle, and once in high school—or six tests total. That’s the ground over which a lot of energy will be expended: whether to wind up closer to 6 or to 17.

The Hypothesis Is That Overtesting Is Due to AYP/Sanctions, Not the 17 Tests: The dominant school of thought on Capitol Hill is that the problem with overtesting would be alleviated by scrapping the federal requirements for AYP and the “remedy cascade.” The thinking is that the real problem is all the benchmark testing and test prep that districts have adopted with an eye to making AYP, rather than the federally required tests themselves. Thus, the assumption is that you could conceivably stay at 17 tests and still strike a huge blow against overtesting by dumping federal prescriptions for determining AYP or for what to do with schools that “need improvement.”

A Rapid Timeline: The odds are good that both the House and Senate will hold “markups” on legislation by the end of March. Remember, nearly all the members on the Senate HELP committee are returning—and the couple new additions know these issues. Meanwhile, the House Ed & the Workforce Committee will be taking up a draft very similar to the bill the House passed (with a smaller Republican majority) 18 months ago. So it’s very possible both the full House and Senate will be voting before Memorial Day. If Senator Lamar Alexander can find a half-dozen or more Democratic votes (and the odds seem good), we could be look at a conference committee and negotiations with the White House this summer.

Discount the Yammering: There’s an old rule in life that the people opining are not the ones making the decisions. Those of us who are writing and chatting about reauthorization are not the ones in the room, so take all the stuff we write and say with several grains of salt. So, you’ll read all manner of stuff from various “reformers” and advocates who are kicking, screaming, and insisting on things. You’ll especially hear this from my friends on the left who believe that federal bureaucrats are really good at gauging school performance and telling educators how to improve low-performing schools. They can huff and puff a lot, but Hill Republicans just aren’t going to care that much about what they have to say.

Duncan Is Old News: The subtext of Secretary Duncan’s speech today will be “I’m still relevant.” The thing is, he isn’t really that relevant. Duncan has worn out his welcome with Hill Republicans. They see him as obdurate, unwilling to listen, and remarkably disinterested in what the federal government shouldn’t do or what it can’t do well. Hill Republicans are going to move forward with little attention to Duncan’s gesticulations; the real bipartisan action will be between Senator Alexander and Democratic senators like Murray, Bennet, Warren, Baldwin, Warner, McCaskill, and Manchin. If the House and Senate pass bills and go to conference, it’s an open question how much they’d be negotiating with Duncan—or how much Duncan and his problematic legacy on waivers/Common Core/gainful employment would be sidelined in favor of direct negotiations with a legacy-conscious White House.

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