U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, unveiled a bill to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act that would require states to set achievement and growth targets for students, including subgroup students. The proposal, which faces steep political hurdles, mirrors the Obama administration's NCLB waiver system but is a marked departure from the bipartisan measure that was approved by the education committee back in 2012.
All eleven other Democrats on the committee have signed onto the legislation, which will be considered by the full panel on June 11. But the bill has no Republican sponsor, and it seems unlikely to garner GOP support, given that it outlines a more robust role for the federal government than the 2011 measure, which got the support of just three (relatively reluctant) Republicans.
Still, the bill is likely to find more support in the civil rights community than the bipartisan 2011 proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the current version of the NCLB law. That measure drew strong opposition from advocates for English-language learners, racial minorities, disadvantaged students and those in special education who saw it as watering down accountability.
"This is a big improvement," said Kate Tromble, the director of legislative affairs for the Education Trust. She said the organization still sees some potential areas for improvement, but "overall is happy with the direction of the bill."
And, just after the bill was released, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a big umbrella group of some 200 civil rights organizations, put out its own supportive statement saying the bill "seeks to make the American dream a reality for all children by focusing on closing achievement gaps, reducing dropout rates, and improving school climate." The Education Trust and the Leadership Conference were among the most vocal opponents of the 2011 bill.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also thinks the committee is on the right the track.
"I'm pleased that the bill raises standards to ensure that students graduate from high school ready for college and career, and ensures accountability for the academic growth and achievement of all students, including at-risk students," he said in a emailed statement.
Republicans were a lot less enthusiastic. The top GOP lawmaker on the committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, "believes that the U.S. Department of Education has become so congested with federal mandates that it has, in effect, become a national school board and that the Harkin bill makes this congestion worse," his spokesman said. Alexander is planning to introduce his own ESEA bills later this week.
And a GOP aide said the bill was a lot like K-12 policy legislation being debated on Netflix's House of Cards. "It's surreal just how much life is imitating art," the aide. "The only way to describe this bill is far left."
Teachers' unions generally liked the bipartisan Senate bill that passed out of committee, so what do they think of this one?
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, seemed pretty pleased in her statement.
"Sen. Harkin's bill is a good first step that sensibly helps public schools help all kids and recognizes the need to do things differently," she said. "We're gratified that it provides more flexibility than the current law and offers more ways to fix, not reflexively close, schools."
It's not clear whether the National Education Association thinks this is an improvement over the 2011 bill from the statement that President Dennis Van Roekel put out just moments after the new measure was introduced.
"We welcome this renewed effort," he said. "Students, parents, and educators know the law isn't working. That's why there's been such strong push back--from Seattle to Rhode Island to Florida--against high-stakes standardized testing schemes ushered in by the law."
As for other groups representing educators, Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said his organization was still digesting the bill, but at first blush, he's found things to like, including language that would allow states that already have waivers to continue doing what they're doing.
But CCSSO is worried about the prospect of "prescriptive language" around teacher evaluation, an area of policy many states are wrestling with. And Minnich is bummed that the bill is Democrats-only. "We would much rather see a bipartisan attempt so that we can get to the finish line," he said.
Some other key pieces of the new proposal:
• The testing regime would largely mirror the NCLB law, with tests in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and at least once in high school. Schools would still have to break out and report achievement data by subgroup. One change from current law: States could use a series of formative assessments (including, in some cases, portfolios and performance tasks) instead of just one big summative test if they want, as long as the formative assessments give a full picture of student achievement.
• States that have waivers (that's 37 and counting) could stick with those plans. States that don't already have waivers would have to come up with a set of goals that take into account both overall student achievement and growth. One possible choice: States could strive to get all schools up to the level of the highest-achieving schools in the state by a reasonable date and include accelerated achievement targets for subgroup students. (That's a pretty ambitious accountability system.) Otherwise, states could submit another equally ambitious plan to the U.S. Secretary of Education for approval.
• Just as under the waivers, states would have to identify their bottom 5 percent of schools as "priority" schools, and another 10 percent of schools with persistent achievement gaps or other problems as "focus" schools. Under the bill, high schools with graduation rates of less than 60 percent would also count in the priority school category. States would have two years to transition to this new accountability system. And, if other schools miss goals for subgroups, there must be some kind of local intervention. Civil rights groups see that as a big improvement over the waivers, Tromble said.
• The bill keeps in place the four improvement models created under the School Improvement Grant program. But it would add another option, "whole school reform", which allows for using turnaround programs with a super-strong evidence base. Plus, schools using the "restart" option wouldn't have to convert to a charter—they could become magnets. And the bill would give slight flexibility to rural districts to change one aspect of whatever model they end up going with. States could also come up with their own improvement models and submit them to education secretary for approval. But if a school fails to make sufficient improvement after an extended period, the district would have to close it, convert it to a magnet school, or to a public charter school in partnership with a management organization; or, after a community needs assessment, the district may apply to the secretary for a waiver to implement another school improvement plan. Also: If a priority school fails to make improvement for an extended period, the state can step in and take it over.
• Schools would have to adopt standards that prepare students for post-secondary education or the workforce, but those standards would not necessarily have to be the same as the Common Core State Standards. (Sound familiar, anyone who has ever read a waiver application?) States would also have to adopt English Language Proficiency standards, with multiple categories.
• States would have to create uniform report cards for every school that provide clear information about things like trends in academic achievement over a three-year period, and a rundown of how the school performs on state tests in each subject relative to the state average. Schools would also have to give information on school climate (such as discipline data), and information on how the school does with particular populations (such as pregnant and parenting teens). Schools would also have to provide data on whether they provide offerings such as Advanced Placement classes and full-day kindergarten.
• In order to tap Title II dollars, districts and states would have to do teacher evaluations based in part on student outcomes, including achievement and growth. Other measures, such as educator observations, would also have to factor in. Districts and states would use this information to help teachers improve their practice and to ensure that good teachers are distributed throughout the district—but not necessarily for big personnel decisions, like salaries and firing. (That's a difference from the waivers, in which evaluations must be used for personnel decisions. Under the bill, it appears to be optional.) And, a hefty portion of district Title II dollars—20 percent—would go to professional development at the lowest-performing schools.
• The bill doesn't wholesale adopt the president's super-ambitious (and probably dead for the year, thanks to an austere budget climate) universal prekindergarten initiative. Harkin is likely to introduce a separate bill that would include a broader pre-kindergarten proposal. This bill would, however, call for states that use Title I money for early-childhood education to set early-learning standards and encourage states that don't already offer full day kindergarten to do so. It would also call for low-performing elementary schools to partner with high-quality early childhood programs in their area, to help bolster student achievement. And it would establish early childhood "Centers of Excellence" to help improve early childhood programming in states.
Oh, and unlike in 2011? This bill isn't just the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It has a name: the "Strengthening America's Schools Act."
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, is expected to come out with his own ESEA overhaul bill very soon. Advocates expect that it will likely be similar to the measure that got a very partisan stamp of approval last year. The legislation would really scale back the federal role in K-12 policy.
The upshot? Folks in the education community will get to see how lawmakers in both parties would like to change the much-maligned NCLB law. But advocates for districts, states, and teachers are unlikely to get the reauthorization they're really hoping for.