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Senate Moderates Release NCLB Overhaul Plan

By Alyson Klein — March 02, 2011 5 min read
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A group of moderate Democratic senators released a set of principles this morning for revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that closely mirrors the Obama administration’s own vision as outlined in a blueprint released almost a year ago.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, of Colorado, the administration’s Senate soulmate on K-12 issues, and Sen. Kay Hagan, of North Carolina, led the effort to craft the moderates’ ESEA wish list.

The statement, which was signed by 11 senators in all, represents a moderate marker on ESEA. It remains to be seen whether it will appeal to at least some moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats, whose support will be needed to get an ESEA reauthorization bill through the Senate (not to mention the more conservative U.S. House of Representatives).

The lawmakers used much of the same rhetoric that the administration has in describing their ideas for K-12 policy. For instance, the statement of principles criticizes the current version of the law, the nine-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, for encouraging states to lower their standards while being really rigid about how they meet those standards—that line is also one of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s greatest hits.

“We should reverse that paradigm through reauthorization: supporting state efforts to set clear, high, common standards for students to be college-and career-ready, but allowing much greater flexibility at the state and local level to determine the best way to meet those standards,” the statement of principles says.

It also links improving education with ensuring the nation’s long-term economic progress, an Obama-ism.

Specifically, the group wants to:

1) Change the accountability system at the heart of the law—Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP—so it focuses on student growth over time, as opposed to the current system, which basically compares different cohorts of students to one another. This proposal is no surprise. Almost everyone, from conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats, likes the idea of measuring growth, and many states are already doing it through a pilot project at the Education Department that was started by Duncan’s predecessor, Margaret Spellings.

They also want to offer rewards or incentives to schools that are making major jumps in student achievement. That reminds me of the Title I rewards proposal in Obama’s fiscal year 2012 budget request, which would, in essence, give money and flexibility to schools that help students make progress.

And the senators want to give states more flexibility in figuring out how to intervene in most schools that miss AYP (for instance, those that are successful with most students but aren’t working well with a particular subgroup, such as English-language learners) while being really stringent with the lowest-performing schools. Schools that really can’t improve should be shut down. That’s straight out of the Obama blueprint, too.

2) Stick with the Obama administration’s four options for turning around the lowest-performing schools, which include steps such as turning a school over to a charter operator, closing the school, removing half the teachers, and/or putting in a new instructional program, and extending learning time while beefing up professional development. The senators say schools that are struggling the most really need these dramatic models, which have faced some major bipartisan criticism.

The senators say they want to ensure that the models, most of which call for staff shakeups, are workable for rural schools, which may have a tougher time attracting new teachers and principals. And they say community buy-in is key.

3) On teachers, see that colleges of education are held accountable for the performance of their graduates. (This closely tracks with an Obama budget proposal, which was spurred by a Bennet idea.) And the moderates want to provide competitive money to create and scale-up promising teacher prep programs.

They also want to see new systems for measuring teacher effectiveness that incorporate a bunch of measures, including student outcome data, to be developed with teacher cooperation. And they want more on-the-job support for teachers, including extra money for those that take on extra responsibilities.

4) Continue Race to the Top, the administration’s signature K-12 initiative, which rewarded states for embracing certain education reform principles, such as charter schools and performance pay. The administration has suggested making it a district competition.

The lawmakers also want to continue the Investing in Innovation, or i3, program, which scaled up promising practices at the district level.

5) Fix the so-called “comparability loophole” in Title I, so that schools would have to report salary data for teachers in addition to other expenses. Districts also should make sure that high-poverty schools get their fair share of state and local resources, the lawmakers say. The administration tried something similar in the reporting requirements for the federal economic-stimulus program, and the lawmakers see that as a good model.

When I think of comparability, I automatically think of The Education Trust, an advocacy organization in Washington that has been championing this idea for eons. But it’s not a slam-dunk and could get politically dicey, as this story shows.

So does this moderate set of principles mean that the Obama blueprint has momentum? Maybe. But these lawmakers are probably among the administration’s closest allies in Congress on K-12 policy, so if they hadn’t liked the blueprint, it’s pretty safe to say no one was going to.

In addition to Bennet and Hagan, the set of principles was signed by Democratic Sens. Mark Begich, of Alaska; Thomas Carper, of Delaware; Chris Coons, of Delaware; Dianne Feinstein, of California; Herb Kohl, of Wisconsin; Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana; Joe Manchin, of West Virginia; Mark Warner, of Virginia; and Connecticut’s Joseph Lieberman, an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

UPDATE: Some of these lawmakers may be introducing bills on parts of the list of principles in coming weeks. For instance, Hagan is working on a bill on turning around the lowest performing schools.