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Civil Rights, Disability Groups Trash Harkin NCLB Bill

Advocates for poor and minority students, students with disabilities, and others sent a letter to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., expressing deep concerns with legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act put forth today.

The groups, including the National Council of La Raza, the Education Trust, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said the bill would mean that:

"Congress, parents, tax-payers would have no meaningful mechanism by which to hold schools, districts, or states accountable for improving outcomes at the pace our economy demands. ... It is not the federal government's role to dictate how states, districts, or educators get their students to higher levels of success. But the federal government must—in exchange for scarce financial resources—be firm, ambitious, and unequivocal in its demands for higher achievement, high school graduation, and gap closing."

This is a big deal, because, while these groups are non-partisan, they tend to back Democrats when it comes to many policy decisions. Apparently, this time is an exception.

"It is deeply disappointing that a Republican president could be more forceful on gap-closing than is the democratic chairman of the [Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions] committee," said Amy Wilkins, the vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust.

The Education Trust won't be supporting the bills. "It makes us really sad," said Wilkins. "There's some good stuff in there. But it's undercut by the lack of goals. That's a total deal breaker."

Wilkins added that there are possible options for bringing achievement targets into the bill. One approach, she said, is in the administration's waiver plan, which gives states three options for setting goals for their accountability systems.

Another option is a bill sponsored by Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, both Democrats from Colorado, based on their home state's growth model.

At the time that legislation was released, the Obama administration gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up. "Fixing NCLB's broken accountability system is one of the most important things we can do as a country," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement released earlier this month. "We need to be able to measure students based on their growth and progress, not one test taken on a single day. I thank both Senator Udall for his thoughtful leadership on this issue and Senator Bennet, who has been a tireless advocate for education—both as Denver superintendent and in the U.S. Senate. I look forward to working with both of them on this critical issue."

Harkin said on a conference call today that the progress targets were stripped, in part, to keep the bill bipartisan. And he said that most states have adopted college-and-career ready standards, which will ensure a high bar.

But advocates aren't sure the trade was worthwhile.

"He made a lot of concessions to get Enzi," Wilkins said. "The question to me is how bipartisan is this if Alexander introduced [his own bill]. ... I question how possible bipartisanship is, given the Alexander bills," she said, referring to a package of bills introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and other Republicans on the education committee.

The ESEA bill is sponsored by Harkin. Enzi has been negotiating with him on the issues for months, but is not officially a sponsor of the legislation. Enzi is anticipating a bipartisan markup, according to his aide.

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