Federal

Rival Proposals Show No Clear Path to ESEA Rewrite

By Alyson Klein — June 10, 2013 7 min read
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Lawmakers in Congress introduced three separate pieces of legislation last week to rewrite the long-stalled Elementary and Secondary Education Act—but none of the measures has bipartisan backing, meaning that there will almost certainly not be a reauthorization this year.

All three bills—like the administration’s series of waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act—would move away from “adequate yearly progress,” the key yardstick at the center of the 11-year-old federal school accountability law. But the similarities largely end there.

A measure introduced by Senate Democrats—which has gotten the thumbs-up from some influential civil rights groups—would largely pivot off the administration’s NCLB waiver system. But Republican bills introduced in both chambers would seek a much slimmer role for the federal government when it comes to accountability, school turnarounds, and education funding.

“We tried hard to get a compromise,” Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top lawmaker on the education committee and the author of the Senate GOP legislation, said last week. “We just have dramatically different views of the role of the federal government in education.”

‘Big Improvement’

See Also

See a side-by-side comparison of the proposals to revamp NCLB, broken down by key issues.

Under the Senate Democratic measure—put forth by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the chairman of the education committee, and endorsed by the 11 other Democrats on the panel—states would be on the hook for setting goals for student achievement. For the 37 states plus the District of Columbia that have waivers, they could stick with those plans. And states that don’t already have waivers would have to come up with a set of goals that take into account both overall student achievement and growth.

That’s a departure from legislation that Sen. Harkin introduced in the previous Congress, with Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, who at the time was the top Republican on the panel. The bill passed out of committee in October of 2011 with the support of every Democrat and just three Republicans. But it never made it to the floor of the full Senate, in part because of opposition from the civil rights and business communities that argued the legislation didn’t go far enough in requiring states to set student-achievement goals.

Those groups don’t feel that way this time around.

“This is a big improvement,” said Kate Tromble, the director of legislative affairs for the Education Trust, a Washington group that promotes educational equity. She said the organization still sees some potential areas for improvement, but “overall is happy with the direction of the [Harkin] bill.”

And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—who expressed big concerns about the 2011 bill—agreed that the Senate legislation would “support and build on state reform efforts.”

But the bill seems unlikely to attract support from Republicans in the Senate who are largely on the same page as their House colleagues. Both the House and Senate GOP bills would require states to test students each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school in reading and math, as under NCLB, but otherwise, states would largely be in the driver’s seat when it comes to school improvement and goals for student achievement.

Split on Evaluations

Republicans in both the Senate and the House are divided, however, when it comes to teacher evaluations. The Senate Republican measure would allow, but not require, states to use teacher quality to implement new educator evaluations based on student outcomes. The House measure, on the other hand, would require districts to develop evaluations based on student outcomes and they would have to be used in personnel decisions, as determined by the district.

The Senate Democrats’ bill is slated for consideration by the full committee this week. If it passes, it’s unclear whether it would advance to the floor. Sen. Alexander said he is hoping to see that happen so that lawmakers can fully debate the competing visions.

The House education committee—which approved a similar bill last year on a partisan vote—is scheduled to vote on its new version next week.

For their part, practitioners have been waiting for more than five years for a full-fledged reauthorization and wish that there was a bill that had the support of both Democrats and Republicans—and one that has a good shot at passing.

“We would much rather see a bipartisan attempt so that we can get to the finish line,” said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington.

Revamping NCLB

Members of Congress are spelling out their legislative vision for an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the current version of which is No Child Left Behind. Among the ways that rival proposals would deal with key issues:

Accountability

Democrat (Senate)

Republican (Senate)

Republican (House)

Maintains the NCLB law’s testing schedule, and states that have federal waivers could stick with those plans. States that don’t already have federal waivers would have to come up with a set of goals that take into account both overall student achievement and growth. States without waivers would have to submit an ambitious accountability plan to the U.S. secretary of education for approval.

States would essentially get to design their own accountability systems, with few parameters from the federal government. Schools would still have to test students in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and data would have to be disaggregated by subgroups.

States would essentially get to design their own accountability systems, with few parameters from the federal government. Schools would still have to test students in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and data would have to be disaggregated by subgroups.

Funding

Democrat (Senate)

Republican (Senate)

Republican (House)

The bill includes a “comparability” requirement, which means that districts would have to ensure that actual teachers’ salaries are the same across Title I and non-Title I schools. Now, teachers in a district have to be on the same salary schedule, but the teachers at one school can get paid much more, collectively, than the teachers at another.

The bill would get rid of maintenance of effort, which requires districts to keep up their own spending at a certain level in order to tap federal funds. But it would keep in place “supplement not supplant,” which prohibits federal dollars from taking the place of local funding.

The bill would get rid of maintenance of effort. It would merge programs aimed at migrant students, neglected and delinquent children, English-learners, rural students, and American Indian children into the biggest K-12 program, the Title I program for disadvantaged students. 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.

Low-Performing Schools

Democrat (Senate)

Republican (Senate)

Republican (House)

The bill would keep in place the four improvement models created under the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grant program. But it would add another option, “whole-school reform,” which allows for using turnaround programs with a strong evidence base. And the bill would give slight flexibility to rural districts to change one aspect of whatever model they end up choosing. States could also come up with their own improvement models and submit them to the education secretary for approval. Schools that fail to make progress after an extended period would have to consider more dramatic interventions.

The bill would get rid of the School Improvement Grant program and would instead allow states and districts to intervene in the schools they choose.

The bill would get rid of the School Improvement Grant program and would instead allow states and districts to intervene in the schools they choose.

Standards

Democrat (Senate)

Republican (Senate)

Republican (House)

States would have to adopt standards that prepare students for post-secondary education and the workforce, but those standards would not necessarily have to be the same as the Common Core State Standards.

The bill calls for “challenging” standards that will prepare students for postsecondary education without remediation or the workforce. It would explicitly bar the secretary of education from doing anything to encourage states to adopt a particular set of standards.

The bill would explicitly bar the secretary of education from doing anything to encourage states to adopt a particular set of standards.

Teachers

Democrat (Senate)

Republican (Senate)

Republican (House)

In order to tap Title II dollars, districts and states would have to do teacher evaluations based in part on student outcomes, including achievement and growth. Other measures, such as educator observations, would also have to factor in. Districts and states would use this information to help teachers improve their practice and to ensure that good teachers are distributed throughout the district—but not necessarily for big personnel decisions, like salaries and firing.

The bill would encourage states and districts to use Title II dollars to create teacher-evaluation systems based in part on student outcomes, but it wouldn’t be a requirement.

The bill would require school districts and/or states to craft teacher-evaluation systems based in part on student outcomes and use them in personnel decisions as defined by the district, including promotions and firing.

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Education Week as NCLB Bills Split Over Federal Role in K-12

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