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Subgroup Accountability at Issue in ESEA Renewal

The National Council of La Raza, which advocates for English-language learners, is worried about the potential impact of language in a widely circulated draft of a Senate plan to reauthorize the nation's main education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The language calls for states to ensure that schools are making continuous improvement, but they would not have to set student performance targets toward a specific goal, as they do now under the current version of ESEA—the No Child Left Behind Act. The changes also would allow states to decide which interventions to use in all but the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and schools with persistent achievement gaps (as defined by the state).

"We haven't seen the bill, but in general, we would be concerned about having no progress targets," said Raul Gonzalez, the director of legislative affairs for La Raza. "We've worked with Mr. Harkin (chairman of the Senate education committee) on a lot of issues. We know that he has the interest of all kids at heart. And so we hope the bill that emerges out of committee is one that has some solid targets and has some authentic accountability."

Gonzalez is worried about a trend he sees—in the Obama administration's NCLB waiver package, and in details that have been released about Sen. Tom Harkin's, D-Iowa, ESEA reauthorization plan—toward backing away from the federal government's role in looking out for particular subgroups of students.

Gonzalez is worried that there doesn't appear to be a clear mechanism in the Senate plan to ensure that schools follow through on their school improvement plans.

"Clearly NCLB was a kind of high-water mark as far as accountability [for all students]. ... I think we're moving in the reverse direction," he said. Without strong accountability, "we'll have two education systems, one for poor and minority kids" and one for other kids.

Under the draft language circulating in Washington, the federal accountability system would change to put a strong emphasis on the 5 percent lowest performing schools, and on schools with the largest achievement gaps, including between subgroup students (such as racial minorities) and others. But states would get much broader leeway over accountability in most schools.

Gonzalez said he's working with Harkin's Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions to tighten up the bill's accountability provisions.

"We hope that [the bill] ends up in a place where we can support it," he said.

Since Senate staff members are still putting the finishing touches on the bill, there could be changes before it is officially dropped. And Gonzalez noted that there are several members of the committee he thinks are champions for low-income students who might be willing to work for improving the bill for subgroups, including Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Al Franken, D-Minn, as well as Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

Gonzalez's take echoes the concerns of Charlie Barone, the director of federal legislation for Democrats for Education Reform. Taken together, the comments point to dissatisfaction in the civil rights community with the Senate plan's accountability provisions. Those concerns are also expressed in a letter sent by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights to committee leaders in April.

For more background on the issue of subgroup accountability, check out this story.

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