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Senate Ed. Panel Debates Goals, Turnarounds in ESEA Bill

By Alyson Klein — October 20, 2011 4 min read
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The Senate education committee rejected an effort today to change assessments and standards for students with disabilities, as it marked up a bill to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It also debated student achievement goals and turnaround options for schools that fall into the bottom 5 percent of student performance.

Meanwhile, the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the committee, and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., reached an agreement with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., so that action on the bill could move forward. Paul withdrew his procedural objections to the legislation and let the committee debate it during normal hours after Harkin and Enzi agreed to hold a hearing on the legislation. That Nov. 8 hearing will take place after the bill is reported out of committee—but before it goes to the Senate floor.

On its second day of markup on the bill, the committee voted 14 to 8 to reject an amendment by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., that would have required that schools spell out how students with disabilities would be assessed under their individualized education programs, or IEPs. That would be a huge change from current law, where just a certain percentage of students in special education can take alternative assessments. Disability advocacy groups were strenuously opposed to the amendment. Isakson said the amendment would ensure that students are assessed appropriately, but Harkin, who has family experience with those with disabilities, worried kids wouldn’t be challenged.

And in the period of just an hour this morning, the committee debated some key issues at the heart of the ESEA law, including student performance goals, and school improvement models.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., the administration’s closest ally on K-12 policy, put forth, but then withdrew, an amendment that would have made a huge change to current law. It would have called for states to set performance targets, based on three options outlined in the administration’s plan for waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act. They include setting goals that would bring all students to proficiency by 2020, cutting the achievement gap in half, and coming up with another rigorous option on student goals.

Even though the amendment didn’t get a vote, it sparked an interesting debate that could be a preview of what’s to come when it comes to the sticky issue of goal-setting.

Harkin said he “supported the basic idea behind the amendment,” and noted that he and Enzi couldn’t reach agreement on a plan for goal-setting when they crafted the bill. And he said that most states have adopted college- and-career-ready standards.

But Alexander said the measure would be “putting through the backdoor AYP, or adequate yearly progress.” Enzi said that the measure would be appropriate for Bennet to put in place if he was back in his previous job, as Denver schools chief. “We don’t want to create a national school board,” Enzi said.

There was another lively debate on an amendment by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., that would have stripped out language in the bill specifying six turnaround models, for the lowest-performing schools. The bill includes the four turnaround models current spelled out by the Obama administration, as well as two new models.

Burr said the bill is “being sold as a massive change” to the federal role in education, but that it’s not that different if the federal government is telling schools who they have to hire and fire.

“If we pass this bill, and I hope we don’t, I don’t think there is a plan in here to fix the bottom 5 percent of schools,” Burr said. That just isn’t the federal government’s job, he said.

But Bennet called the bill “the biggest federal retreat we’ve ever had in the history of this country.” He said the federal government has a role to play when it comes to the worst-performing schools. “The idea that we would insist that the very bottom of the heap be dealt with is not an overly intrusive federal intervention.”

Burr withdrew his amendment, in part because he thought another amendment on the school-improvement models, which will be introduced later in the markup by Alexander, had a “chance of passing.”

The Alexander amendment would keep the four models in place, add additional options for rural schools, and set up a fifth option, which would allow districts to submit another turnaround plan to the U.S. Secretary of Education for approval. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said he was strongly considering supporting that amendment, in part to make sure there are options for rural Minnesota schools.

The committee also adopted an amendment by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that would strike the requirement that teachers of Native Alaskan and Hawaiian languages be “highly qualified.”

Photo: Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, left, talks with a staffer during the committee’s hearing Oct. 19. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)