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Advocates, Policymakers Give Mixed Early Reviews to ESEA Draft

So what do folks inside the Beltway think of Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.'s draft bills the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka No Child Left Behind)? That depends on whom you talk to.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, for one, isn't happy with either the substance or the process. He said the administration is going to stick with its plan to give states waivers from pieces of the NCLB law in exchange for embracing certain reform priorities.

I appreciate the effort, but this bill retreats from reform, accountability and bipartisanship. We need to set politics aside and put kids first. Until Congress can pass a real bi-partisan reform bill that the president can sign, we'll be moving forward with our ESEA flexibility package because America can't wait.

Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the committee, is also not a fan. He put out a statement last week highlighting his problems with its handling of accountability, funding, standards, and school improvement.

And Sen.Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee and the author of that chamber's bill, also lamented that the bill only has Republican support.

"I am disappointed that he [Rep. Kline] has abandoned the longstanding tradition of bipartisanship when it comes to the education of our kids," he said.

Generally speaking, groups that represent school officials see the draft as a good starting point. But advocates that look out for particular groups of children, such as students in special education, are really unhappy with the draft.

The American Association of School Administrators, for one, is in the good starting point camp.

The draft gets back to a more local vision for education, while maintaining strong accountability by ensuring that schools continue to test students and disaggregate those results for particular subgroups of students, such as English-language learners, said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director for policy analysis and advocacy at AASA.

"We see this as a good middle ground," Ellerson said. "I have a hard time understanding why people think there's not a sense of accountability in a bill like this." If school district folks are given good data, they'll be better able to serve all kids, she said.

"We start from a place that assumes that school districts and school leaders act in good faith and have the interest of children at heart," she said.

The Council of Chief State School Officers has also found much to like in the proposal, said Chris Minnich, the senior membership director at CCSSO.

"We think that this sets the table for some sort of action that could actually get to the finish line," Minnich said. "We're excited about a lot of things in here. ... We appreciate the flexibility. It's a huge selling point for our members."

CCSSO is especially happy that states would get much more leeway to craft their accountability systems, and that the draft would require some sort of teacher evaluation system. But there are some areas the chiefs would like to see discussed further, including the possibility of some sort of student performance targets. (There aren't any in the bill right now.)

Another area is improvement strategies for the lowest- performing schools. The chiefs have major qualms about the strict four models the department has directed states to use for the bottom 5 percent of schools. But they don't like that the entire School Improvement Grant program would be scrapped under the House draft. That would take away resources for turnarounds, Minnich said.

But there's also plenty of pushback.

Laura Kaloi, the public policy director at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, is concerned the draft could result in much lower expectations for students in special education.

"The [draft] falls short in many areas," Kaloi said. She called the draft "a retraction" from any kind of standard or expectations for students with disabilities, who she said have "benefited greatly from being part of an accountability system with high expectations."

Right now, schools that don't meet achievement targets for those students are subject to serious sanctions. But under the draft, states would get to build their own accountability systems—and there would be no federal interventions for schools that don't improve outcomes for students with disabilities. States would have to decide whether to do that on their own.

And, unlike in current law, there are no caps in the draft on the number of kids that could take alternative assessments. That means lots of kids with learning disabilties could be subject to easier tests and lower standards, Kaloi said.

Charles Barone, the director of federal legislation for Democrats for Education Reform, said he has trouble "taking this seriously." If a renewal bill is going to pass this Congress, it has to be bipartisan, he said, since the Senate is in Democratic hands.

"I think this is a stage prop rather than a real legislative effort," Barone said. "They're just doing this to say they did something." Under the bill, accountability would be "pretty much anything goes," he said. "It's just a bunch of vague language."

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