U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.—the chairmen of the Senate and House education committees come January—have both named overhauling the No Child Left Behind Act their No. 1 priority for the upcoming Congress.
So what might that bill look like, other than just generally shrinking the footprint of the federal government?
Well, if you’ve been following congressional efforts to update the law over the last few years, you might have some clue. After all, Kline has already ushered through the House two Republican-backed reauthorizations of the outmoded law, and Alexander introduced his own version last year.
School Choice Provisions
Looking ahead, any new proposal will likely include a provision regarding school choice, though whether that means expanding high-quality public charter schools or giving parents vouchers to send their children wherever they please remains to be seen.
Signs, however, point to a charter school option. Both Alexander and Kline are considered pragmatic lawmakers eager to work across the aisle, and there is plenty of bipartisan consensus surrounding charter schools. In fact, this Congress, with the help of Kline and Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat set to retire at the end of this year, the House passed a bill with overwhelming support from both Republicans and Democrats.
“Parents need more options, and choice, and public charter schools offer that without the controversy that comes with vouchers for private schools,” Kline said in a post-election interview with Education Week.
During this Congress, Alexander proposed a measure that would allow states to take almost all of their federal K-12 funds, including Title I and IDEA, and combine them into one giant block grant aimed at creating scholarships for low-income students that could be used at any school, private or public. But he’s also worked with Democrats on a bill to revamp the federal charter-school-grant program.
As for accountability, the two forthcoming chairmen have toyed with similar policy ideas.
Under both of Kline’s NCLB updates, states would have to test students, but they wouldn’t have to set goals for student achievement. In addition, they wouldn’t have to intervene in schools that aren’t making progress with particular subgroups of students, such as minorities or those with disabilities.
Meanwhile, Alexander’s proposal would allow states to devise their own accountability plans and eliminate the federal role in requiring states to set specific student-achievement goals, or in identifying a certain percentage of schools as low-performing. Schools would still be required to test students in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, as the law currently requires, and report the results, including for subgroups of students.
Since Kline and Alexander proposed those accountability measures, the idea of reducing the amount of testing has been gaining traction. It’s one area where Republicans may even be able to garner support from teachers’ unions, which have historically been opposed to the Republican education agenda.
In a post-election interview, Mary Kusler, the National Education Association’s director of government relations, said that while the union’s main focus in reauthorization will be ensuring educational equity for all students, the NEA will also work to cut down on testing to give teachers more time for instruction.
“We need to reduce the misuse and overuse of high-stakes standardized testing because it is getting in the way of the teaching and learning of the students that are in the most need,” Kusler said.
The movement toward cutting down on required testing has found some support among the Council of Chief State School Officers and, most recently, U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. [UPDATE (10:59 AM): Though Duncan has yet to specifically call for a reduction in federal testing requirements, he has called for a reduction in duplicative state and local assessments given to students in addition to federal tests. What he decides to do with New Hampshire’s proposed pilot project will be a good indicator of how far he’s willing to go in terms of reducing tests.]
Kline said in his interview that he is open to the idea of grade-span testing, in which students would be tested every few years, but would insist on some type of mechanism to collect disaggregated data that shows gaps between subgroups of students.
“That way, we can say, ‘Hey, look, we’re leaving this segment of the student body behind,’” Kline said. “I’m not a big proponent of piling on lots of tests, but we have to have some measure.”
Other Things to Watch For
In the policy arena, look for any NCLB reauthorization to include language that strictly prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt the Common Core State Standards or any other set of academic benchmarks.
The increasing notion that the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competitive grant and its NCLB waivers forced states to adopt the common-core standards has resulted in Republicans introducing dozens of bills that would prohibit any such incentives.
Also look for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to play a role—at least on the Senate side—in crafting the bill.
Murray, who is expected to leave her post on the Budget Committee for the ranking member position on the education panel, is known for being one of the Democrats’ strongest negotiators. She will have an extra incentive to work with Alexander to overhaul the law: The U.S. Department of Education recently yanked Washington’s NCLB waiver, sending the state on a messy transition back to the law’s outdated accountability system.