Senate Education Panel Approves ESEA Overhaul

Measure to overhaul law still faces political hurdles
By Alyson Klein — October 20, 2011 9 min read
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, attends the markup on Oct. 20.
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A long-stalled, bipartisan rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act approved by the Senate education committee last week faces steep political hurdles, including opposition from civil rights and business leaders who see it as a step back on student and school accountability and from Republican lawmakers who say it doesn’t pull back enough on the federal role in education.

But supporters of the bill, including its leading architect U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the committee, still hope to bring a revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act to the Senate floor for a vote in time to put the kibosh on the Obama administration’s plan to offer states waivers of key parts of the current law.

Sen. Harkin said after the committee’s 15-7 vote Oct. 20 that it was “possible” Congress could approve a rewritten version of the nation’s main K-12 education law before Christmas—and before the waivers, under the plan announced last month, are to be granted.

The measure overhauling the ESEA, whose current version is the No Child Left Behind law, is the product of months of negotiations between Mr. Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the committee.

It would keep the NCLB law’s regime of testing students annually in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once during high school. And it would retain the law’s focus on breaking out achievement data for various subgroups of students, including racial minorities, students with disabilities, and English-language learners.

But the version approved by the committee after a two-day markup also would drastically scale back the accountability system at the heart of the NCLB law, which was approved with broad bipartisan support in 2001. Among other changes, the panel’s bill would:

• Scrap the law’s signature yardstick, known as adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

• Put a halt to federally directed interventions for all but the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and schools with persistent achievement gaps between low-income students, minority students, and their more advantaged peers;

• Lay out a series of federal interventions for turning around those lowest-performing schools based in part on the Obama administration’s regulations for the School Improvement Grant program;

• Call on states to craft standards for college and career readiness, but not require them to join the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which nearly all states already have done; and

• Streamline the U.S. Department of Education by consolidating 82 programs into about 40 broader baskets of funding.

Rocky Process

The Senate committee’s markup of the legislation got off to a rocky start Oct. 19 after Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., threw up hurdles, filing 74 amendments and using a rare procedural move to limit the time the committee could debate the bill. He and committee leaders later reached an agreement that allowed work to move forward while assuring him of a hearing on the bill Nov. 8, before it goes to the Senate floor.

Sen. Paul eventually agreed to scale his amendments back to just a handful, including one to repeal the NCLB law. That amendment failed.

Some amendments offered during the markup—and then withdrawn by their sponsors—gave a preview of what will likely be hot areas of debate once the bill moves to the Senate floor.

For example, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., proposed, but then withdrew, an amendment that would have let states set performance targets based on options outlined in the administration’s waiver plan, including setting goals that would bring all students to proficiency by 2020, and cutting in half the achievement gap among various subgroups of students.

Sen. Harkin said he “supported the basic idea behind the amendment,” and noted that he and Sen. Enzi couldn’t reach agreement on a plan for goal-setting when they crafted the bill.

But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said such a change would amount to a back-door way of continuing the widely disparaged AYP yardstick.

Sen. Enzi said that the measure would be appropriate for Sen. Bennet to put in place if he were back in his previous job, as Denver schools chief, but not as a federal approach. “We don’t want to create a national school board,” Sen. Enzi said.

Odd Couple

Debate over the measure has also created some strange political bedfellows.

A draft version of the measure released Oct. 11 by Sen. Harkin, would have called for states to craft teacher evaluations that took into account student achievement. But that provision was scrapped at the behest of committee Republicans, who said it would amount to a federal mandate in what should be a state and local area.

The GOP priorities jibed with those of the National Education Association, a 3.2 million-member union that is usually allied with Democrats, which also saw the provision as a federal intrusion.

The NEA also saw eye-to-eye with the GOP on another change to the bill, which passed with bipartisan support during committee consideration. That provision, sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander, would permit states to submit their own ideas to the U.S. secretary of education for turning around the lowest-performing schools.

Speaking on the second day of the HELP committee’s markup of the bill, Sen. Alexander said his amendment would give states the flexibility to develop turnaround options that might work better than those spelled out in the bill. When he was governor of Tennessee, Sen. Alexander said, “I never thought Washington was ahead of me.”

But seven Democrats on the committee—including Sens. Harkin and Bennet—voted against the amendment, which passed with unanimous support from Republican members.

“We are talking about the bottom 5 percent of schools,” said Sen. Bennet. “None of us send our children to those schools. None of us has grandchildren in those schools. ... My hope is that whatever these models are, they are at least as robust as the ones that are contained in the legislation. Otherwise we’re going to have those children who are marooned in those 5 percent of schools, marooned in those schools for the rest of their K-12 education, for the rest of their lives.”

After the vote, a Senate GOP aide gave Mary Kusler, the manager of federal advocacy for the NEA, a congratulatory hug.

Ms. Kusler was happy with the outcome. The NEA has not been a huge fan of the Obama administration’s turnaround models, in part because the union considers them a federal intrusion. And many of the existing models require the removal of a school’s current teachers, or call for merit pay.

“We applaud the passage of Sen. Alexander’s amendment to add additional flexibility to the turnaround models in the bill,” Ms. Kusler said in a statement. “If you want to make lasting, sustainable changes, you must engage all of the people who are involved—educators, parents, administrators, and community members.”

Amendments Accepted

Amendments from a number of senators from both sides of the aisle were approved during the markup:

• Sen. Alexander introduced an amendment, accepted on a voice vote, that would allow students in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in a state to transfer to better-performing schools.

• An amendment sponsored by Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., would require that new principals coming into turnaround schools have a background in school improvement. Some Republicans voted against it, including Sen. Alexander, who said he thought that districts would already be planning to choose the best person.

• An amendment by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., would give states the option of using computer-adaptive tests for accountability purposes under the law. Sen. Franken said the tests are a big hit in his state and give teachers a right-now picture of how their students are doing.

• Another Franken amendment would provide competitive grants to recruit and train principals to lead turnaround schools.

• Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., introduced an amendment to reauthorize the Educational Technology State Grants, which help states design technology programs. The program lost its authorization in the 2011 continuing resolution on the federal budget, and was eliminated under the original version of the ESEA bill. The language would restore the program.

• Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., introduced an amendment that would create a “well-rounded education” fund. School districts could use the money to fund arts; civics and government; economics; environmental education; financial literacy; foreign languages; geography; health education; history; physical education; and social studies programs.

• Sen. Bennet put forth an amendment that would give states the option of holding their teacher-training programs accountable for producing educators who demonstrate before they graduate the ability to boost student achievement. In exchange for their participation in the program, education schools would be exempt from regulations that he described as “burdensome,” “input based,” and “unrelated to student achievement.”


Other amendments were rejected, including:

• An amendment offered by Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., that would have allowed teachers to be considered “highly qualified” only if they had completed a state-approved traditional or alternative teacher-preparation program, or passed a rigorous state-approved teacher-performance assessment, and attained certification in their subject matter. Sen. Bennet argued the measure would deal a blow to Teach For America and other alternative-certification programs.

• An amendment by Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., that would have scrapped the authorization for the Promise Neighborhoods program, which helps communities create cradle-to-career services modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone. Sen. Kirk said the program had financed only a handful of planning grants and the money would be better spent on special education.

Some other amendments that were offered, then withdrawn, gave a preview of what are likely to be areas of debate as the bill moves forward. Among them:

• An Alexander amendment that would have stripped the highly qualified teacher provisions out of the bill. The bill retains the idea that teachers must have degrees in the subjects they teach and be state-certified. Sen. Alexander’s amendment would have let states decide who is highly qualified. The senator said he’d be bringing that proposal to the floor.

• An Alexander amendment that would have taken out language in the bill requiring that states make continuous improvement in student achievement, and another that would have eliminated a proposed requirement that states develop a plan to address schools with persistent achievement gaps. Sen. Alexander made it clear that both of those amendments would make a reappearance on the floor, and that he’d fight for them in a conference committee.

• A proposal by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., that would have scrapped the authorization for the Race to the Top program, the Obama administration’s signature education initiative. Sen. Roberts said he would offer the amendment on the Senate floor.

A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as ESEA Bill Clears Panel in Senate


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