Teaching Profession

Interest Turns to ESEA Plan’s Chances of Passing

By Alyson Klein — March 15, 2010 7 min read
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Now that the Obama administration has unveiled its blueprint for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, attention is shifting to whether the proposal will win sufficient support from lawmakers, policymakers, and education advocates to assure passage.

Initial reaction from groups including the American Association of School Administrators, the National School Boards Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers, has been generally positive, even as policy watchers and advocates are still digesting the blueprint.

But the proposal rolled out March 13 already has two key detractors: The National Education Association, a 3.2 million-member union, and the American Federation of Teachers, a 1.4 million-member union.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, said last week that the blueprint would place too much responsibility on teachers, without giving them sufficient authority.

And Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, issued a statement saying the proposal “still relies on standardized tests to identify winners and losers. ... We were expecting more funding stability to enable states to meet higher expectations. Instead, the ‘blueprint’ requires states to compete for critical resources, setting up another winners-and-losers scenario.” The NEA has long been one of the most vocal critics of the current version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan countered on a conference call with reporters Monday that union critics may have missed a critical aspect of the proposal in their initial appraisal: “Maybe they didn’t fully see how much of this now a shared a responsibility,” he said.

The secretary—who is scheduled testify on the blueprint before the House and Senate education committees on Wednesday—stressed that the law’s current version, the No Child Left Behind Act, focuses most of its attention on individual schools, while largely leaving other key players out of the equation.

“Districts and states weren’t a part of the previous law; they would be under our proposal,” said Mr. Duncan, apparently referring to language in the blueprint saying that states and districts would be subject to consequences and rewards, as are schools.

And he said there are aspects of the ESEA proposal that teachers are likely to favor, including an emphasis on ensuring that principals and other school leaders are well-prepared and effective.

Fixes and Flexibility

Major elements of the administration’s proposal were foreshadowed in the administration’s fiscal 2011 budget proposal and in initiatives under the economic-stimulus law.

The administration contends that its long-awaited proposal is aimed at fixing the “flawed” NCLB law to make it more flexible for states, while encouraging them to set higher standards for students.

Under the blueprint, for example, the NCLB deadline for bringing all students to proficiency by the 2013-14 school year—deemed unrealistic by many critics—would be replaced with a goal of ensuring that all students are ready for college or a career by 2020.

But that date appears to be aspirational. Carmel Martin, the assistant secretary for policy, program evaluation, and planning, told reporters last week that it isn’t an absolute deadline.

Advocates also were pleased with the blueprint’s strategy of focusing the most dramatic interventions on the most troubled schools—those whose performance puts them in the lowest 5 percent in their state. Such schools would have to choose one of four intervention strategies spelled out in the U.S. Department of Education’s regulations for the $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant program.

The next-lowest 5 percent of schools, and those that have considerable achievement gaps between the highest- and lowest-performing students, would have to implement research-based interventions.

Schools that are high-performers would be rewarded with recognition, additional dollars, and funding flexibility.

The blueprint would retain key aspects of the NCLB law, including its requirement for annual testing in reading in math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and its call for disaggregating student data for populations such as racial minorities, English-language learners, and students in special education.

The law’s reauthorization has been pending since 2007.

Political Pitfalls

Charles Barone, who served as an aide to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., now the chairman of the House Education Committee, said unions’ opposition could cost the proposal Democratic support in Congress, but the “key question” will be to what extent.

“The unions are the ones who have the most political power,” said Mr. Barone, who is now the director of federal legislation for Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee based in New York City that raises money for Democratic candidates who embrace policies such as performance pay and charter schools.

If the administration loses the support of key Democrats because of the unions’ opposition, officials will likely need to find more votes within the Republican caucus.

Michael J. Petrilli, who served in the U.S. Department of Education during President George W. Bush’s first term, said he expects Republicans will find much to like in the blueprint.

“Republicans who have been arguing for local control should feel to a large degree like they’ve won the argument,” said Mr. Petrilli, who now serves as a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank in Washington. “This [proposal] backs away from federal intrusion big time, at least at the heart of the law, which is the accountability system. … Republicans couldn’t expect anything more friendly to the states.”

But Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top GOP lawmaker on the House Education and Labor Committee, made it clear in a statement released March 15 that there are aspects of the proposal he sees as federal intrusion.

While the blueprint “identifies many of the right goals for improving our schools” there are “still major differences from across the spectrum about the best path forward. Whether it’s federal pressure to adopt national standards or prescriptive reporting and school management requirements, this blueprint has already sparked strong debate,” he said.

Cautious Backing

Some groups that have been wary of the NCLB law in part because of its expansion of the federal role were largely pleased with the blueprint.

For instance, Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va., called the proposal “a vast improvement over the flawed No Child Left Behind program which it would now replace.”

“We are pleased that the plan would provide a comprehensive set of initiatives by which the federal government could support local school districts to raise student performance and close the achievement gap for academically struggling students in our public schools,” she said in a statement.

Still, the NSBA has concerns about aspects of the proposal, including a plan to tie Title I funding to state’s adoption of college- and career-ready standards.

Janet Murguía, the president of the National Council of La Raza, an organization in Washington that advocates for Latinos, said in a statement that the blueprint offers “hope that we can eliminate the achievement gap faced by Latino students who have been plagued by decades of low expectations.”

But, she said, she’d like to see a stronger mechanism for empowering parents to take advantage of new educational opportunities, such as charter schools.

Mr. Barone, of DFER, is concerned that the vast majority of schools would be able to develop their own interventions. Now, he said, about 40 percent of students need some sort of remedial coursework when they enter college.

“I don’t know how you have an identification system that gets at that problem without saying that a lot of schools need to improve,” he said.

Some Democrats in Congress have already voiced strong support for the proposal, including Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the House majority leader.

“It is important to recognize and reward schools that make real progress in raising student achievement, just as it is important to focus our assistance and attention to effectively turn around the lowest-performing schools,” Rep. Hoyer said in a statement.

The proposal also won praise from rank-and-file Democrats, including Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., who represents a district in inner-city Philadelphia, and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a former Denver schools superintendent, who is facing a tough race in 2010.

The largely positive reception represents a sharp contrast to a 2007 attempt to reauthorize the law.

Rep. Miller released a draft bill nearly three years ago with many of the same elements as the Obama proposal. But the draft was attacked by a broad spectrum of groups, including civil rights advocates and school superintendents. It was never formally introduced as legislation.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week

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