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Duncan, Key Senators Sing Off Same Page on ESEA Renewal

The ESEA Bipartisan Ship is still sailing the day after the State of the Union.

Three of the four members of the U.S. Senate's "Big 8" on education policy, along with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, told reporters today that they intend to move quickly and collaboratively on a bill that fixes some of the key issues with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose current incarnation is the nine-year-old No Child Left Behind lAct.

All three lawmakers on the media call—Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee; Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo, the top Republican; and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the ranking member of the subcommittee overseeing K-12 policy—said they want to see changes to the law's system for labeling schools.

All three said that if there isn't a change soon, the law is going to deem too many schools that are performing well as failures. And they all said they want to see changes to the law's signature yardstick, Adequate Yearly Progress. They weren't specific, though, about whether a change to AYP would mean an actual change to the schedule of testing students in reading and math in grades three through eight, or something more along the lines of the changes suggested in the administration's ESEA blueprint, which called for gauging individual student progress toward readiness for college or a career.

Harkin said there's bipartisan agreement that the federal government should focus on the needs of the lowest-performing schools and advance "teacher evaluation and improvement systems."

And he wants to ensure that the new version of ESEA allows schools to spend time on subjects other than reading and math, such as the arts. All three seem to want to keep in place the system of disaggregating data by subgroups (for example, racial minorities and particular populations, such as students in special education).

Harkin reiterated his wish to get a bill ready to mark up by the Easter recess, and on the floor by the summer. He said the committee is going to get right into the writing of legislation, with no more hearings. (The Senate committee had 10 last year.)

And he said he wants a comprehensive bill in the Senate, while the House seems more inclined to move smaller, targeted pieces of legislation.

I asked the senators and Duncan how they planned to deal with the intra-party divisions among Democrats on issues such as teacher quality—and among Republicans on issues like whether there should even be a U.S. Department of Education.

Harkin said there's a lot of expertise in both chambers on K-12 issues, and that can help move things along. "I think with good will and perserverance, we'll overcome those little squabbles," he said.

Alexander acknowledged he has, at various times, taken every possible position on the federal role in education. But he added, "I think the way we avoid getting hung up on that is that we're focused on fixing the problems that exist with NCLB ... We take them one by one, step by step ... we get down to basics." He said he'd like the new version of the law to "leave the decisions that divide Washington" to be decided by states, district superintendents, and others operating at the local level.

That statement, plus Speaker of the House John Boehner's stated aversion to big, complicated bills, leads me to guess that Congress will be working toward a lean, streamlined reauthorization—a path Alexander pushed for last year.

That may actually make sense from the administration's perspective. The department got a lot of what it wanted to accomplish done through the Race to the Top program and the rest of the federal economic stimulus, including the move toward more common, rigorous academic standards, a new focus on turning around low-performing schools, a rethinking of teacher evaluation practices at the state level, better state data systems, and common, uniform assessments.

Those things didn't happen everywhere, of course, but they were pretty widespread. The question now is whether they can continue if Congress doesn't provide at least a little more funding for the Race to the Top carrot.

But Duncan doesn't seem to think money needs to be a big part of the reauthorization discussion.

"Those are two totally separate issues, and one should not hold up the other," he said. "There's no price tag for fixing NCLB, it won't cost a nickle."

It also sounds like there is still bipartisan agreement (at least among the lawmakers, not neccessarily Duncan) that there needs to be at least some revision to the four School Improvement Grant models. Enzi reiterated his view that he doesn't think the options work for remote rural schools. Duncan, though, reminded folks that, before the four models were in place, most foundering schools chose not to do much of anything.

"I'm open to any conversation that is part of raising expectations," he said.

Alexander commended Duncan for encouraging states to work together on more rigorous uniform standards. But he made it clear he doesn't want to see a "federal" standard.

"We just can't do that, we don't have the right to do that," he said.

There wasn't a lot of discussion of teacher quality, which sort of surprised me. But there was some discussion about changing the No Child Left Behind name. Enzi wants to go back to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which even he acknowleged is "bland." And Harkin suggested something along the lines of Every Child Counts.

Alexander sounded a note of caution amidst all the good feeling, saying "I don't want to make it sound like it's going to be a piece of cake or too easy," he said. But he added "I look forward to coming up with a consensus to fix the problems with NCLB."

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