The prospects for a bipartisan, comprehensive rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act moving through Congress this session remain cloudy, even after a hearing on a bill last week that was intended to serve as a prerequisite for sending it to the floor of the U.S. Senate.
During the Nov. 8 hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Republicans continued to express tepid support for the measure, while civil rights advocates typically aligned with Democrats lambasted the bill as a major step backward on student accountability.
For his part, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the committee chairman, made it clear that the measure approved by the committee Oct. 20 is a compromise.
“This bill that we have will not solve every problem in elementary and secondary education. ... No bill has everything everybody wants,” Sen. Harkin said of the bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the top Republican on the panel. He said the central question is: “Does it advance the cause of finding proper balances between federal, state, and local?”
The Obama administration—which is offering states waivers of some provisions of the current version of the law—has been quietly critical of the bill’s handling of two key issues: accountability and teacher evaluation. But Sen. Harkin said after the hearing that those decisions were the result of the need for bipartisan compromise with Sen. Enzi.
“The administration can say those things,” Mr. Harkin said of such critiques. “They never had to negotiate with anyone to get those waivers.” The waivers would give states wiggle room under the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the ESEA, but only if they advance certain reform priorities favored by the administration.
It’s unusual for a congressional committee to hold a hearing on a bill it’s already passed. But during last month’s markup of the Harkin-Enzi bill, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., threatened to slow down the process of committee consideration unless the panel held a hearing that included representatives from groups that would implement the law, such as teachers, principals, and superintendents.
Sen. Paul took the opportunity at the hearing to reiterate his view that the federal government should stay out of K-12 policy.
“The farther we get away from the local school board, the worse it gets,” said the Kentucky senator. And he said he is “concerned that we still have a testing mandate. I don’t think we fixed that.”
Other Republicans may also be seeking changes to the bill if and when it gets to the Senate floor.
Sen. Enzi said he would like to see “a much smaller federal role” in education and “fewer programs” and was sorry that “the markup moved in the opposite direction.”
Right after the panel’s 15-7 vote on Oct. 20, Sen. Harkin said he’d like to move the bill to the Senate floor as soon as possible. He said he was hoping to get it passed in time to stop the administration’s package of waivers. Thirty-nine states, plus the District of Columbia, have announced their intention to apply for the waivers.
But it doesn’t appear that the bill will be approved in time to head off the waiver package. For one thing, senators still have to approve spending bills and consider recommendations before year’s end from the “supercommittee” charged with making long-range proposals for cutting the federal deficit.
“Ultimately, the decision to bring legislation to the floor rests with Senate leadership,” said Justine Sessions, a spokeswoman for Sen. Harkin. “Chairman Harkin is working with them on the bipartisan legislation approved by the HELP Committee last month, but he is also aware that the Senate floor schedule is extremely crowded.”
The hearing was done in a roundtable format. Witnesses were asked to explain which parts of the bill they particularly liked and which parts they thought needed work.
Jon Schnur, a co-founder and the chairman of the board for New Leaders, a nonprofit organization in New York City that helps train principals to work in underperforming schools, said he thought the committee should consider a big incentive for developing evaluation systems. One possibility could be to award competitively at least half of Title II funding—the nearly $2.5 billion that states get each year for teacher quality—instead giving it all out by formula.
Elmer Thomas, the principal at Madison Central High School in Richmond, Ky., said he was glad to see the committee was “getting rid of punitive [adequate yearly progress] sanctions.”
A broad coalition of civil rights and business groups, including the Washington-based Children’s Defense Fund, the Education Trust, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, remains opposed to the legislation, however. Their views were represented at the hearing by Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who called the bill “a historic retreat from accountability.”
After the hearing, a Senate aide sought to counter some of those claims, pointing to language in the bill that makes it clear that states must submit accountability plans that address the success of student subgroups, such as racial and ethnic minorities and students with disabilities. The main difference between the committee’s bill and current law is that there wouldn’t be a federal system of labeling schools, or federally spelled-out interventions for schools with lagging achievement.
That balance works for Tom Luna, the state superintendent in Idaho and the president-elect of the Council of Chief State School Officers. Idaho has embraced some major changes lately, including on teacher quality, merit pay, and technology initiatives—all without federal involvement, Mr. Luna, a Republican, said in an interview after the hearing.
“I think the reauthorization keeps the good parts of the No Child Left Behind Act,” he said, including the focus on disaggregating data for all students, while including some positive changes, such as growth models, which allow states to measure individual student progress.
He said he believes the scaling-back of the federal role is the right move. “I don’t think it’s a question of whether states can step up,” he said. “I think they’ve proven that they have.”
Mr. Luna added that he’d rather see a congressional rewrite in place of waivers. “Reauthorization is long term,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as ESEA Overhaul Bill Finally Gets Airing; Rough Path Remains