The bipartisan bill slated for markup in the U.S. Senate’s education committee this week to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act represents a major legislative accomplishment for a Congress that isn’t usually keen on working across the aisle.
The proposal, which Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairman and ranking member of the education committee, unveiled April 7, includes education policies meant to charm both parties as they rewrite the law, the current version of which is the No Child Left Behind Act.
For Republicans, states would have the flexibility to create their own accountability systems, and for Democrats, Title I dollars for low-income students wouldn’t be able to follow those students to the school of their choice.
The measure, however, faces significant legislative hurdles.
Among its highlights, the 600-page, bipartisan proposal to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would:
- Not allow Title I dollars for low-income students to follow them to the school of their choice;
- Maintain the current federal annual testing requirement;
- Require states to disaggregate data for subgroups of students;
- Allow states to create their own accountability systems;
- Require states to identify low-performing schools;
- Require states to adopt “challenging” academic standards, but says that the federal government could not mandate or provide incentives for states to adopt any particular set of standards, including the Common Core State Standards;
- Not require states to develop and implement teacher-evaluation systems;
- Eliminate the “highly qualified teacher” definition in the current law and requirements to staff all core classes with such teachers;
- Offer incentives for states and school districts to implement policies to significantly improve instruction for English-language learners;
- Make funding for Title II for teachers and Title IV for school climate issues 100 percent transferable between the two;
- Create a competitive grant for charter schools;
- Prohibit the U.S. Secretary of Education from mandating additional requirements for states or school districts seeking waivers from federal law;
- Authorize a comprehensive state literacy program;
- List early-childhood education as an allowable use of funding for a broad swath of programs in the ESEA.
SOURCE: Every Child Achieves Act of 2015
Chief among those obstacles is the committee markup, slated for this week, during which members of the education committee will offer amendments to the negotiated bill to alter it more to their liking. Republicans have the numbers to approve or refute any amendment that’s offered, so maintaining the legislation’s bipartisan nature will be a delicate process that’s sure to test the politicking skills of Mr. Alexander and Ms. Murray.
“They did pass a big hurdle, and it’s definitely important that they got a bill between the two leading senators, but until we see signs that other senators are willing to sign off on it, it’s safer to bet against it going forward,” said Chad Aldeman, associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a policy think-tank in Washington.
Still, education advocates and the Obama administration touted the senators’ bill, formally titled “Every Child Achieves Act of 2015,” as an important step toward reauthorizing the law.
Whether or not to allow Title I dollars to follow students to the public school of their choice—a policy known as “Title I portability"—has been one of the major debates spiraling out of congressional efforts to overhaul the law.
Mr. Alexander’s original draft of the bill included Title I portability, which has been a big priority for Republicans, some of whom, like Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., would like to see the policy pushed even further to allow students to use their Title I dollars at private schools.
But the negotiated bill does not include Title I portability, a big win for Ms. Murray and the Obama administration, the latter of which has all but said it would veto any bill that included such a provision.
During the committee markup, it’s likely that Republicans, including Mr. Scott, will try to insert that language back into the measure.
The other key discussion surrounded testing, specifically whether the federal government should maintain its annual testing schedule and how those tests should play into a reimagined accountability system.
Currently, states are required to test students every year in math and English/language arts in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and also in science once in grades 3 through 5, once in grades 6 through 8, and once in high school. The compromise bill keeps the annual federal testing schedule, but gives states the option of using one big summative test or lots of smaller tests that, combined, reflect a single summative assessment.
The Alexander-Murray bill would also maintain the requirement that states disaggregate data for subgroups of students, including minorities, low-income students, English-learners, and those with disabilities. And while the bill would require states to use that information in their accountability systems, it would give them significant flexibility in crafting those systems.
In a nod to a big GOP priority, the bill specifically bars the education secretary from mandating added requirements for states or school districts seeking waivers from federal law.
In addition, states would still have to identify low-performing schools under the compromised measure, but the bill doesn’t specify what share of schools would need to be targeted—a dramatic change for states operating under the administration’s NCLB waivers, which require states to identify 5 percent of very-low-performing schools for dramatic interventions.
School Improvement Aid
States would also still have a dedicated funding stream for school improvement efforts, but the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grant models would be eliminated. In fact, the bill’s language specifically prohibits the secretary of education from “mandating, prescribing, or defining the specific steps school districts and states must take to improve those schools.”
As for standards, the bill simply outlines that states must establish “challenging academic standards for all students.” It also specifically cites the Common Core State Standards as something the federal government can play no role in advocating or coercing states to adopt.
The 600-page bill contains hundreds of other provisions for lawmakers and stakeholders to comb through, including competitive grants for charter schools, a formula and competitive grant to support programs for Native American students, and increased flexibility for rural schools in how they use federal dollars.
Few lawmakers had weighed in on the bill by the time this story went to print, mainly because they were back in their home districts for a two-week legislative recess.
But both U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and White House press secretary Josh Earnest called the negotiated bill “a good first step.”
In statements, Mr. Duncan and Mr. Earnest outlined the administration’s continued priorities for a reauthorization, some of which include preventing funding cuts, closing achievement gaps, providing more flexibility for innovation, and supporting teachers.
In an otherwise positive statement, Mr. Duncan made a point to push back on the fact that the bill does not require states to identify a certain percent of low-performing schools, saying “we must provide more resources and ask for bold action in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools.”
Education stakeholders, meanwhile, generally praised the measure.
‘Excellent Bipartisan Bill’
Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers called it “an excellent bipartisan bill.” And though he referred to it as a “starting point,” he also emphasized that it reflects the key priorities of his organization and would “provide our states with the long-term, stable federal policy they need to continue making progress for all students.”
Both national teachers’ unions applauded the bill, though reaction from the American Federation of Teachers was more positive than the National Education Association, which said it was still reviewing the bill with “a fine tooth comb.”
“Their framework restores ESEA’s original intent of mitigating poverty and addressing education equity,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten in a statement. “It moves away from the increasingly counterproductive focus on sanctions, high-stakes tests, federalized teacher evaluations and school closings.”
Some advocates in the civil rights community were cautiously optimistic.
Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said she’s pleased that the bill takes into account many of her concerns about protecting the most disadvantaged students. But she is still wary that the bill doesn’t go far enough to preserve the federal role, equitable distribution of resources, and data collection and reporting for vulnerable students.
A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2015 edition of Education Week as ESEA Bill a Bipartisan Work in Progress