Anyone following the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would be able to guess at the big question hanging over a hearing on the House GOP bills to rewrite the law: What's the right role for the federal government in helping to improve K-12 education?
The legislation, introduced last week by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, would squelch the federal role in education policy, leaving almost all major accountability decisions to states.
"Instead of a one-size fits-all federal accountability system, our bill directs each state to develop its own system that takes into account the unique needs of students and communities," Kline said during today's hearing. "We've been trying to achieve the balance."
But the proposals' lack of performance targets, particularly for special subgroups of students, such as English-language Learners, has prompted an angry response from civil rights groups and business leaders—and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the committee. He said No Child Left Behind, the current version of ESEA, "turned the lights on" when it comes to student achievement, particularly for subgroups of students who had long been ignored.
In testifying before the panel, Delia Pompa, the senior vice president of programs at the National Council of La Raza, echoed those arguments.
"I think the notion of high expectations is missing from this legislation," she said. "If we do not set these expecations, we've seen a lot of evidence that all children don't get the same treatment and aren't held to the same standards. ... We've seen too many years where peformance for these children was shoved under the rug."
Kline asked Tom Luna, Idaho's superintendent of public instruction and the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, what he thought of the argument that the proposal would take away states' impetus for reform. Can states move the needle on accountability without the feds making them?
They sure can, Luna told him.
"States have demonstrated that, without being compelled by the federal government they've adopted higher academic standards than they have in the past," Luna said, referring to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort among 46 states to craft uniform, rigorous standards. "Without any compulsion from the federal government there's a renaissance going on around the country in education reform."
(Politics K-12 question: No compulsion from the federal government? What about those extra points states got in Race to the Top for adopting uniform, rigorous standards? Does that count as being compelled by the feds, or no? Comments section is open.)
The committee also heard from Felicia Kazmier, an art teacher from Otero Elementary School in Colorado's Harrison School District Two, which is considered a national pioneer in using student achievement to inform evaluation systems. Kline's bill includes a provision that would require districts to create those systems—it's something he has a strong personal belief in, he has said.
Kazmier said she thought she was a good teacher before she went to work for the district. But the evaluation system has taken her practice to a whole new level, she said.
"As a good teacher, what do you have to fear" from an evaluation system, she asked.
But not everyone buys the argument that putting evaluations in the law is a good idea. In fact, it's led to some funky politics. Over on the Senate side, Republicans successfully got evaluation language stripped out of that chamber's version of the bill. But Kline is personally committed to putting requirements for evaluation in the law, a goal the Obama administration shares.
Another key question facing lawmakers: Should there be a role for the federal government when it comes to school improvement? Kline's legislation would zero out the School Improvement Grant program, which has been criticized for being too prescriptive.
That's not the right way to go, argued one of the witnesses, Robert Balfanz, the co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.
Some progress is beginning to happen in turning around the nation's lowest-performing schools, thanks in part to the SIG program, although it has its flaws, Balfanz said.
The legislation "takes the foot off the gas," when it comes to school improvement, he said.
Kline said he would like the committee to consider the legislation in the next couple of weeks. But it doesn't seem likely that many Democrats, at least on the committee, will support it. And, because Congress has been so dysfunctional and partisan lately, almost no one expects reauthorization to actually happen this year.