Early Childhood

Obama Administration Aloof as Lawmakers Tangle Over ESEA

By Alyson Klein — August 08, 2013 7 min read
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan responds to questions during an Education Week interview last week at the Department of Education. Instead of focusing on renewal of the ESEA law, Mr. Duncan has been tending to NCLB waivers and putting considerable energy into selling the administration's plan to substantially expand prekindergarten programs.
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Not since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 has Congress been so outwardly engaged in K-12 policy, yet most advocates remain pessimistic that there will be a new version of the flagship federal education law anytime soon.

A big part of the reason: The Obama administration may have little incentive to see a bill to revise the Elementary and Secondary Education Act advance in the current legislative climate, in which lawmakers seem more likely to erode, rather than support, the president’s policy priorities. This year, for example, lawmakers have been working on two highly partisan ESEA bills—one of which, the GOP-backed House measure, President Barack Obama has threatened to veto.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spent a lot of time and energy seeking a reauthorization of the ESEA—currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act—when he first came into office in 2009. And Mr. Obama made education a focal point of his 2010 State of the Union address, even proposing an additional $1 billion for K-12 education that year to encourage Congress to pass an ESEA bill that was consistent with the administration’s agenda.

But when lawmakers had difficulty developing bipartisan legislation, the administration turned in 2011 to what it has called Plan B: the series of waivers issued so far to 40 states and the District of Columbia, allowing them to get out from under some of the NCLB law’s most stringent mandates, in exchange for embracing such Obama administration priorities as rigorous academic standards and teacher-evaluation systems that are based in part on student outcomes.

The longer the waivers stay in place, the more likely those policies are to take root in state law and district practice, allowing the administration’s vision for K-12 policy to flourish—without a messy legislative process that could ultimately could result in a product that strays far from the Obama team’s vision.

“My impression is that the Obama administration doesn’t think a good ESEA bill will come out of the Congress,” said Jack Jennings, a longtime policy observer who served for decades as an aide to Democrats on the House education committee. “I think they prefer to continue with the current situation, relying on waivers.”

Instead of focusing on renewal of the ESEA law, Mr. Duncan has been tending to waivers and putting considerable energy into selling the administration’s plan to substantially expand prekindergarten programs to the tune of $75 billion over 10 years.

In a recent interview with Education Week, the education secretary suggested that the preschool proposal might have a better shot at garnering bipartisan support—and therefore, be more worthy of his time and attention—than other legislation, including the ESEA.

A Look Under the Hood

The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has approved its version of a bill to revise the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the first such bill to get floor action since the law’s current iteration—the No Child Left Behind Act—was enacted in 2001. Among its key provisions, the House legislation would:

Leave in place the NCLB law’s testing schedule, which requires states to test students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. States would still be required to “disaggregate,” or break out, data to show the progress of typically overlooked groups of students such as English-language learners, students in special education, racial minorities, and disadvantaged students.

Scrap adequate yearly progress, or AYP, the key yardstick at the heart of the NCLB law, and instead allow states to design their own accountability systems, without approval from the U.S. secretary of education. States would have to do some intervention for the lowest-performing Title I schools, although the bill isn’t specific.

Combine programs aimed at migrant students, neglected and delinquent children, English-learners, and American Indian children into a single funding stream. It would eliminate the requirement that a school’s population must be 40 percent Title I-eligible for that school to offer “whole school reform” efforts with Title I dollars. It would also eliminate “maintenance of effort,” which requires districts and states to keep up their own spending at a certain level in order to tap federal funds.

Eliminate more than 70 programs it deems ineffective and unnecessary, including key Obama priorities, such as Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, the School Improvement Grant program, and Promise Neighborhoods.

Give states and districts the option of using federal dollars to craft and implement educator evaluation systems based on student outcomes. This was a change from the original legislation, made to gain the support of conservative Republicans.

Allow Title I dollars for disadvantaged children to follow students to the public school of their choice, including a charter school, under an amendment pushed through by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

SOURCES: House Education and the Workforce Committee; Education Week

“Time is a scarce resource, and I want to spend time where there’s a chance to get things done,” Mr. Duncan said. “Why is [early-childhood education] not a wild-goose chase? Because there is such extraordinary bipartisan investment and support across the country that we’re seeing from governors, Republican and Democrat.”

When it comes to the ESEA, he said, “I’d prefer to fix the law and fix it for the country, but again you need partners. It takes two to tango.”

Partisan Process

Although there’s been a lot of congressional activity on the ESEA this year, it’s all been decidedly partisan. The Senate education committee approved a bill this past spring that closely tracks the Obama administration’s vision for renewing the law, in areas including goals for student achievement, but it received only Democratic support. Then, last month, the House of Representatives passed a GOP-only bill to fix the No Child Left Behind law that would allow states and districts much more say over school accountability.

Making matters worse for the administration: To win support from conservative lawmakers, the House bill’s sponsor, U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the education committee, jettisoned a provision that would have required districts to evaluate teachers based in part on students’ academic outcomes—one of the few policy areas on which Rep. Kline saw eye to eye with President Obama and Secretary Duncan.

The perception that the administration has thrown up its hands when it comes to ESEA reauthorization has some education advocates deeply frustrated. Without presidential leadership, they argue, it is likely that what have been envisioned as temporary waivers could remain in place for the long haul.

“We’re concerned that a comprehensive ESEA reauthorization doesn’t appear to be higher on the administration’s priority list,” said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director for policy analysis and advocacy for the American Association of School Administrators.

U.S. Rep. John Kline sponsored his chamber’s version of an ESEA renwal bill.

“We see an effort to provide relief through waivers to select states and districts, and we see more consistent effort from the administration on [prekindergarten],” but less forceful action on an ESEA reauthorization, she said.

On the other hand, she said, “the legislative branch is focused on a comprehensive reauthorization for all schools and states.”

Republican lawmakers resent the implication that their efforts aren’t sincere.

“It is certainly disappointing the secretary doesn’t consider the House-passed Student Success Act a ‘serious’ effort to reauthorize ESEA,” said Rep. Kline’s spokeswoman, Alexandra Sollberger. “This is the first time either legislative body in Congress has approved an ESEA reauthorization bill in more than a decade—and that’s no small feat.”

Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether President Obama’s prekindergarten initiative can get bipartisan support in a Congress consumed with trimming spending.

On the Democratic side, Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Patty Murray of Washington state, along with Rep. George Miller of California, are working on legislation that would enact pieces of the president’s pre-K plan. But so far, even Republican governors have been reluctant to endorse the plan.

Senate Hurdles

Now that the House has passed its ESEA overhaul bill, the next logical step would be for the Senate education committee’s bill to advance to the floor of the Senate, a move supported by its author, Sen. Harkin, the chairman of the committee.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin hopes to see an ESEA renewal bill advance to the Senate floor.

But Senate floor action is a tricky prospect. Civil rights and business groups, as well as Mr. Duncan, have concerns about the kinds of changes the bill might undergo during consideration by the full Senate, said Charlie Barone, the policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee.

“The Senate [education committee] has a pretty good bill, but to get it off the floor, they are going to have to weaken the bill even further,” said Mr. Barone, who served as an aide to Democrats on the House education committee during the development of the NCLB law 12 years ago. “It’s not going to go in the direction where the administration and its allies, people like us, would want to see it go.”

The administration has good reason to worry, Mr. Barone and others say. Because of Senate rules, Sen. Harkin will need at least a handful of Republicans to agree to move forward with the legislation.

But Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate education committee, voted against the bill and has made it clear that he opposes nearly everything in it. Mr. Alexander is willing to support a motion to allow the legislation to advance to the floor, but only under a process that could leave it open to a wide range of drastic changes—likely bringing it even further away from the administration’s vision.

Case in point: There’s bipartisan angst about standardized testing, so senators could garner cross-aisle support for an amendment to allow states to test students on a staggered schedule for accountability purposes, rather than annually, as under current law.

Legacy Looms

If Congress does not pass an ESEA reauthorization this year or next, the Obama administration may run out of time to get a bill done before the president’s second term expires in January 2017.

It’s an open question what leaving ESEA reauthorization unfinished would mean for President Obama’s legacy in K-12 policy. In State of the Union speeches, Mr. Obama has proudly pointed to changes wrought by Race to the Top, his $4 billion grant program aimed at spurring education redesign by the states. But it is unclear just how well that program is playing out in the 11 winning states and the District of Columbia—and whether its changes will have staying power.

“It’s possible the president will leave office with every major education law needing reauthorization,” Mr. Jennings said, noting that renewals of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Higher Education Act, and other bills are still pending. That situation, he said, would give the next president “the opportunity to rethink the whole federal role” in education.

Assistant Editor Michele McNeil contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2013 edition of Education Week as Obama Administration Aloof in ESEA Wrangling


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