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U.S. Chamber of Commerce Puts Its Stamp on ESEA Renewal

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce threw its considerable lobbying weight behind an Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization proposal Wednesday that would keep intact key aspects of the accountability system at the heart of the No Child Left Behind law.

"There is an important federal role in education," said Margaret Spellings, whose name is probably super recognizable to Politics K-12 readers. (For the two or three of you who don't know ... she was a major architect of the NCLB law when she served as President George W. Bush's domestic policy advisor. Then she became U.S. Secretary of Education. Now she works as the president of the Chamber's Forum for Policy Innovation.)

It sounds like Spellings and the Chamber share the same concerns as a number of civil rights groups who say the Obama administration isn't being specific enough when it comes to what the federal role would be in turning around most schools (i.e. those that don't fall into the very bottom 5 percent in their states).

Those groups are worried that the new law may drop the idea of making sure there are consequences for schools that do a good job with most students, but aren't making progress for particular subgroups of students (such as English-language learners).

The new law "cannot substitute transparency for accountability," Spellings said.

The proposal would retain the current testing schedule in the law, which calls for testing kids in grades three through eight and at least once in high school. Schools must meet state achievement targets in order to meet adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the law. But the Chamber would like to broaden the subjects that count towards AYP to include science (right now, that's optional).

And instead of just labeling schools as making AYP or not, it wants more nuanced labeling, something along the lines of an A through F grading system. (Florida, for one, already has something similar in place.)

Still, the Chamber may have a tough row to hoe, particularly in the U.S. House of Representatives, where a number of conservative freshmen who came to power with support from the tea-party movement want to roll back the federal role in education (and maybe even get rid of the U.S. Department of Ed altogether).

The Chamber isn't affiliated with either party, but its political arm tends to throw a lot of support to Republicans in federal elections. (It also backs some Democrats.)

It's tough to say whether that clout, and the general political benefit lawmakers get from being seen as aligned with the business community, will help the policy arm of the Chamber sell these ideas to folks on the Hill who would otherwise be inclined to see a major rollback of the federal accountability at the heart of the NCLB law.

Tom Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber and a very powerful guy inside the Beltway, said he'll make a personal appeal to GOP lawmakers who want to see the federal role curtailed significantly.

The Chamber will "get them to look at the facts," he said. "I'm going to talk to them about kids. Theirs."

The Chamber also wants to see:

• A clear deadline for bringing all students to proficiency in reading and math. The current law has all schools shooting for the 2013-14 school year, which is right around the corner. The Obama administration wants to boost standards but push the goal to 2020.

• A focus on rewarding teachers and principals based on student gains and an overhaul of teacher tenure rules.

• Title I funding that "follows the child" so that students can get access to free tutoring, public school choice, private schools, charters, and online learning. It's important to note that proposal is not part of the Obama blueprint.

• A new emphasis on preparing students for college. The Chamber's proposal applauds the Common Core State Standards Initiative and says the effort should continue to be state-led. But the proposal doesn't directly say whether there should be federal incentives (i.e. money) to bolster that effort.

The Chamber's next step is to head up to the Hill and meet with key lawmakers. So what was the early reaction?

Alexandra Sollberger, a spokeswoman for Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education panel, had this to say:

The Chamber's proposal for reform falls in line with some of the Committee's top priorities, such as streamlining federal education spending and improving flexibility for states and school districts. We will certainly take a close look at their ideas and the ideas of other interested stakeholders as the education reform debate moves forward.

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