Prospects Fade for Reauthorization of Federal Education Law

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), whose most recent version is called No Child Left Behind (NCLB), has now shaped federal public education policy for eleven years.  The National Research Council has declared that NCLB’s test-and-punish system has “not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries,” and when states make passage of the federally required high school exam a requirement for high school graduation, it “decreases the rate of high school graduation without increasing achievement.” 

Although Congress is supposed to reauthorize the ESEA every five years, the 2002 NCLB version is now six years overdue to be rewritten.  Still Congress dithers.

Competing Bills Introduced

On June 4, 2013, Democrats serving on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee introduced a new version of a bill to reauthorize ESEA. Then on June 6, Senate Republicans serving on the Senate HELP Committee introduced their own contrasting version of an ESEA reauthorization and a couple of hours later, the House Republicans introduced their own version of the reauthorization. It is widely thought by most experts that there is little chance the Senate and House will be able to resolve their differences and agree on a reauthorization in the near future.   Alyson Klein, the experienced Capitol Hill reporter for Education Week, sums up what all this means: "Think that three partisan NCLB bills in one week equals no actual reauthorization this year or anytime soon? You're right!"

The Democratic Senate bill, introduced by HELP Committee Chair, Senator Tom Harkin and unanimously supported by all Democrats on the Senate HELP Committee, closely resembles the current NCLB waivers being offered by the U.S. Department of Education by continuing to emphasize standardized testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school and to require punitive sanctions for the schools that struggle hardest to improve, sanctions that include school closures, privatization, and rating teachers by student's test scores. The bill would require that teachers be evaluated in part by their students' standardized test scores.  The bill would continue to encourage the proliferation of privatized charter schools.

The Republican Senate bill introduced by ranking Republican, Lamar Alexander and supported by the Republicans on the Senate HELP Committee would continue to require standardized testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school, but this bill would reduce the role of the federal government in what it requires of schools unable to raise scores quickly.  States would design their own accountability systems.  Students' test scores would continue to count in part for evaluating teachers. This bill would end the huge competitive grant programs that have been encroaching on Title I, Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants—a good thing, but it introduces a plan whereby children could carry their funding to any public school of their choice, inside or outside the school district. Senator Alexander has indicated he plans to add a private school voucher plan later. The bill would dp nothing to stop the proliferation of charter schools. Alexander's bill would colsolidate several programs for other groups of children into Title I, and there is some worry that combining programs would undermine Title I's primary goal, supporting schools that serve a number of children in poverty, and water down funding for the other programs. 

The House Republican bill released by Rep. John Kline, chair of the House Education Committee, would keep testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school and would get rid of the controversial Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs and allow states to decide how to intervene in schools that struggle to raise scores.  Again, students' test scores would continue to be some part of evaluating teachers. The House bill would merge programs for migrant students, English Language Learners, rural students, and American Indian children into Title I, and there is some worry that combining programs would undermine Title I's primary goal, supporting schools that serve a number of children in poverty, and water down funding for the other programs.  This bill would continue the proliferation of charter schools.

Haven't NCLB waivers solved the problems and made the reauthorization unnecessary? 

The U.S. Department of Education has been granting states unilateral waivers from the law’s most punitive consequences.  But the waivers are being given on a state by state basis, and they embody many of the same test-and-punish requirements that are closing and privatizing public schools in the poorest urban areas. To qualify, states must present accountability plans based on the Department’s own favorite punishments for schools unable quickly to raise scores, including merit pay for teachers based on test scores and other punitive turnaround plans including school closure and rapid expansion of charter schools.  

Thirty-four of the states had been granted waivers by the end of December 2012.

NEW March 1, 2013: Here are the UCC's 2013 succinct, updated talking points to help faithful advocates reflect on and speak to what needs to happen today in public school reform.

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