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What Does Arne Duncan Want in an NCLB Rewrite?

By Alyson Klein — February 23, 2015 6 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been a one-man tour to highlight what the administration sees as the major weaknesses of GOP proposals to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act currently pending in the Senate and in the House of Representatives.

In his latest salvo, Duncan said the House bill, which is expected to pass on a largely party-line vote by Friday, could have a “devastating” impact on resources for education.

Duncan, who spoke at an on-the-record breakfast with reporters Monday morning, talked a lot about how the bill could impact schools financially, pivoting off a White House report released earlier this month. He also talked about an absence of pre-kindergarten programs, and a lack of language to continue the Investing in Innovation grant program, or some other type of initiative aimed at spurring districts and states to try out new approaches when it comes to moving the needle on student achievement.

“Those three things—equity, excellence and innovation—should be in here,” Duncan said. “It is not too late. Senators need to decide whether they want this to be bipartisan, something we can support or whether this is just an exercise in politics.”

Duncan was less specific about what he’s looking for from Congress when it comes to the policies that the administration has pushed hardest on through NCLB waivers, including tying teacher evaluation to student outcomes and holding schools accountable for meeting specific student achievement goals (more on that below).

And it’s an open question as to just how much political clout the administration has on Capitol Hill at this point in the process.

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, and Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairman and top Democrat of the Senate education committee, are trying to negotiate a bipartisan bill to rewrite the law. Duncan and the Obama administration aren’t physically in the room on those negotiations ... yet. But they’re hoping to take a more active role in the conversation if it seems like it’s headed towards a bipartisan product, Duncan said.

And the administration has done very little direct negotiating with House GOP leaders on their bill.

“We’re having much more productive conversations with D’s than with R’s at this point,” Duncan said.

Here’s a closer look at some of the administration’s biggest beefs with the House bill:

  • The proposal would lock-in authorization levels at fiscal year 2012 levels (so basically the same level of spending schools were subject to in the 2012-13 school year) through 2021. It’s certainly true that the bill would seek to lock in spending levels, but it’s also true that Congress doesn’t have to adhere to that language.

    Plenty of programs get far more, or far less money, than their “authorization levels” dictate. For instance, the Teacher Incentive Fund, which doles out grants to help districts try out performance pay programs has gotten hundreds of millions in federal dollars since 2006, even though it was never officially “authorized.” Duncan conceded this, but noted that there’s been no indication that Republicans on Capitol Hill would actually pour more money into K-12 after passing this legislation. He has a point there, though a new Congress could come in well before 2021 and boost spending levels significantly, if they wanted to, even if the House bill were to become law.

  • The legislation doesn’t create any sort of new investment in early childhood education—not a surprise given that the GOP is bent on reducing the federal role and not creating a bunch of new programs. For now Duncan is only saying that he’d like to invest “significant new resources” in this area.

    Democratic House lawmakers are pressing for something expansive, adding an entire new title on early childhood education to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the underlying law of which NCLB is just the latest iteration. But Duncan also talked about the high demand for Preschool Development Grants, a $250 million program aimed at helping states grow and improve their early childhood offerings. If the bill is going to include a new investment in early childhood education, officially enshrining that pre-school program in law seems like a potentially realistic compromise when it comes to early childhood education.

  • The measure includes a provision that would allow states to opt to have Title I dollars follow children to the public school of their choice. The administration is worried that the language could hurt high-poverty districts. It’s not clear, however, how many states would actually decide to take advantage of the new flexibility. Michael Griffith, a school finance expert at the Education Commission of the states, told me he doesn’t expect more than a few states (likely die-hard school choice fans like Arizona and Florida) to take advantage of the new flexibility. But some education organizations that would love to see a bill that rolls back the federal role in accountability are just as worried as the administration about this proposal.
  • The legislation doesn’t allow for the continuation of Obama administration programs that encourage districts to try out new approaches, such as Investing in Innovation and Promise Neighborhoods. Duncan has some good backup here, and lots of advocates support continuing i3.

Would Duncan support a bill that didn’t include the policy that has been closest to the administration’s heart for the past six years—tying teacher evaluation in part to student outcomes? And exactly where does the administration draw the line when it comes to accountability, particularly for the poor and minority students that the NCLB law was designed to help?

On teacher evaluation, he’s not saying for now. “I’m less concerned about bright lines now. The package is what we’re looking. We’re looking at the whole ball of wax at this point, so I’m not sure I’m ready to say we’ll die on our sword for this one or that one,” Duncan said. “We are far, far, far” from a bill that will “be good for kids and the country.”

On accountability, the administration has been really clear it wants to keep NCLB’s testing schedule. Duncan & Co. also want schools to set goals for groups of kids that expect continuous improvement each year. And they’d like states and districts to provide meaningful support to schools that are struggling, such as schools with a really high drop out rates, those with stubbornly low student achievement, and those that have persistent achievement gaps. In addition, the administration would like to see states get creative and look at other factors in addition to assessments, including student engagement, AP course taking, attendance, and college enrollment rates when looking at school performance.

Would the administration want the feds to sign off on accountability systems, though, as they do now under waivers and under the No Child Left Behind Act?

It’s too soon to answer that question, Duncan said. “We hope to get down to that point” in negotiations, he told reporters.

The bottom-line? If the administration was calling the shots, the bills making their way through Congress would not become law without seriously significant changes. Does that mean we won’t see a reauthorization during Obama’s tenure at all ... or is this just everyone’s opening salvo on the way to a reasonable compromise? Hit up the comments section.