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Scope of Federal Role at Issue in Senate ESEA Discussions

So you may have noticed by now that the Senate education committee blew its initial Easter deadline for getting a bill reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to markup.

One of the major points under discussion is just what percentage of schools should be subject to what sort of federal sanctions and labeling. (More on that here.)

To recap, the administration's ESEA reauthorization blueprint called for a very heavy federal hand on the bottom 5 percent of schools. And it designated two other categories of schools (the next-to-the-lowest 5 percent and schools with the biggest achievement gaps) for special attention. States were given much more leeway over other schools, although there would still be some federal involvement.

But there has been talk in the Senate of keeping the federal focus on just the lowest performing 5 or 10 percent of schools and letting states largely decide what happens to other schools, advocates say.

It's tough to say just what an accountability system that just focuses on only the lowest performing schools would look like. Would states have control over what sorts of interventions schools that are missing achievement targets use? Would they control how schools are labeled? What else would be left up to states that is now under federal control?

So far, there hasn't been a hard and fast, comprehensive ESEA proposal released in the Senate, so it's tough to say for sure what ideas are out there and who stands where.

But my guess is that Republican leaders on the education committee—who have been seeking a signficantly slimmed down federal role in education—are among those aiming to keep much of the federal focus on the lowest performing schools, while giving states much more control over other schools. For background, check out this recent editorial, published in The Hill newspaper by Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the top Republican on the Senate education committee.

A number of Democratic senators see the logic in the five percent idea too, advocates say.

Some folks in the civil rights community are worried about a reauthorization that could ultimately focus solely on the bottom 5 or 10 percent of schools. That's not good policy from their perspective.

"There's no indication that there's going to be a [draft bill] that includes something other than the lowest 5 to 10 percent of schools, and that won't cut it," said Dianne Piche, the director of education programs for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "We would be rolling back this law to the era of the Reagan administration, when you had block grants."

The Leadership Conference recently released its own set of recommendations for ESEA reauthorization. Generally, the group is adding its voice to the chorus of civil rights organizations and business groups calling on the feds to focus on schools that aren't doing well with special populations, such as English-language learners.

But they also want to see high schools with high dropout rates and their feeder schools be subject to federal accountability requirements and want to ensure that an ESEA reauthorization doesn't start the clock over on school improvement, among other recommendations.

Meanwhile, other folks argue that having the federal government play a major role in accountability for all schools hasn't worked well. They say local districts and states would come up with better solutions.

What do you think? Should the feds focus on all students, or is just focusing on the bottom 5 or 10 percent of schools the right way to go?

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