Earlier this week, Senate Democrats—lead by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the chairman of the education committee—introduced their bill to renew the No Child Left Behind Act. And now Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and other Republicans have released their vision.
The upshot? Both parties move away from the strong federal accountability system at the center of the much-maligned NCLB law, but to different degrees.
"We tried hard to get a compromise," Alexander told reporters today. "We just have dramatically different views of the role of the federal government in education."
The Harkin bill would require states to create accountability systems that essentially build on the administration's waivers (which are in place in 37 states plus D.C. so far), meaning that states would have to set goals for student achievement and come up with some sort of system to help turn around the schools that are struggling the most.
The Alexander bill, on the other hand, would continue to require states to test in grades 3-8 and once in high school, but the senator is counting on transparency to be the main lever for school improvement. And under the Harkin bill, schools would be on the hook for helping the bottom five percent turn around—plus fixing another 10 percent of schools with big achievement gaps. There's nothing like that in the Alexander bill, which is co-sponsored by GOP Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Mark Kirk of Illinois.
•The Harkin bill would call for districts to craft teacher-evaluation systems based on student achievement. The evaluations wouldn't have to be used for hiring and firing, just for professional development and equitable distribution of teachers. The Alexander bill would eliminate the provision on "highly qualified" teachers, and allow states to use Title II to develop teacher evaluation systems that take into account student outcomes, but it wouldn't be a requirement.
That's a big difference from where House Republicans stand. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education committee, introduced a bill in the previous Congress that would mandate teacher evaluation in districts—and advocates expect that the renewal bill he is slated to introduce very soon to be similar.
"I think Republicans ought to be consistent," when it comes to the federal role, Alexander said. Even though he's a fan of teacher evaluation using student outcomes, he sees it as a district and state prerogative.
•The Alexander bill includes a public-school choice option, which would allow federal Title I dollars to follow a child to any public school they want, but not to a private school or for outside options like tutoring. (So not exactly the Romney campaign plan.) That's not in the Harkin proposal.
•The Alexander bill includes really specific language saying the U.S. Secretary of Education can't require districts to adopt certain tests, standards, or accountability systems.
•The Alexander bill would get rid of maintenance of effort, which requires districts to keep up their own spending at a certain level in order to tap federal funds. But it would not get rid of supplement not supplant, which says, essentially, that federal funds can't replace local dollars.
This isn't the first time Alexander—one of just three Republicans who reluctantly voted for the bipartisan Senate NCLB renewal bill back in 2011— has gone his own way. He introduced a similar set of bills in the previous Congress, but there are some differences this time around, and they matter politically.
About a year ago, some folks—especially the ones working at the center-right Thomas B. Fordham Institute—saw the original Alexander ESEA legislation as a possible ending point for negotiations, since in some ways, it split the difference between a bipartisan Senate bill (that Alexander voted for) and the measure that passed the House education committee with only GOP support. But now? All the pieces of the bill that seemed like potential concessions to Democrats—such as the continuation of the School Improvement Grant program, keeping MOE in place, and a reauthorization of the administration's signature Race to the Top initiative—are pretty much gone.
That—coupled with the Democrats-only new Harkin ESEA renewal bill—pretty much means there's no chance that there will be anything even resembling a compromise, anytime ever until there are new folks in Congress (and maybe a new president).
Still, Alexander said he'd like to see the Harkin bill, which he opposes, advance to the floor, so that Congress can debate it there. He thinks that a compromise in conference is possible, despite what he sees as huge differences between his vision and Harkin's.