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Sen. Bennet Talks Federal Role, Delisle Talks State-Level Action at EdWeek Event

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who served as superintendent of the Denver school system, said Tuesday that members of Congress are well-meaning but don't often have a firm grasp of what goes in school districts.

Lawmakers "have no idea what's going on in our schools and in our classrooms," Bennet said at an event honoring school superintendents and other school leaders selected by Education Week as "Leaders to Learn From". These leaders—from a director of nursing services to a rural schools' superintendent—also heard another federal perspective: from Deborah S. Delisle, the U.S. Department of Education's assistant secretary for pre-K-12. 

Delisle's main message to the audience: "You have a voice. Figure out how to exercise it."

Such leadership would be necessary to fulfill Sen. Bennet's vision for school improvement. In the past, he said, flexibility has been seen as a reward for high-performing districts and schools. He'd like to flip that on its head and give as much leeway as possible to the majority of districts, with significant federal strings only for districts and schools that show they can't move the needle on student achievement.

"Autonomy ought to be the state of nature," he said. "It should be something that you lose if [you don't] perform." For instance, Bennet, who is generally considered a close ally of President Barack Obama's on K-12 issues, doesn't think that teacher evaluation through student outcomes needs to be a requirement in a strong Elementary and Secondary Education Act renewal, according to a tweet from my colleague Michelle Davis. That's a position that puts him at odds with the administration, which requires teacher evaluation for states that want waivers under that law.

When it comes to education, the federal government should focus on a few key areas, he said, including closing the so-called comparability loophole, which seeks to more equitably distribute resources between Title I and non-Title I schools, and lending a hand to school districts that want to experiment with new approaches. Bennet is the author of a bill that would create ARPA-ED, a new research arm for the U.S. Department of Education.  

Bennet has also introduced legislation to make the Race to the Top—which was created as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—a permanent part of the Education Department budget.

While he said he "strongly supports" competitive grants, such as Race to the Top, he acknowledged that "small, rural districts have a very legitimate complaint" in alleging that they have been left out of the mix, in part because they don't have the resources to hire sophisticated grant writers.

When asked to speculate about when the ESEA law would be renewed, Bennet said that, given the current political climate, he doesn't expect it to happen during Obama's tenure. The Higher Education Act—which lawmakers have just begun holding hearings on—has a better shot, he said. 

At the same time, Bennet acknowledged that the current version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, doesn't have a lot supporters—in fact he repeated one of his favorite lines about the law, saying that if someone held a rally to keep it exactly the same as it is now, no one would show up.

"I don't know what it's going to take" to get the law reauthorized, he said.

Delisle—who spoke before Bennet—acknowledged that the inactivity around reauthorization of the NCLB law is going to stagnate and confuse the system. And that has led to a lot of fluidity for states, which are grappling with changes to accountability and teacher-evaluation systems that have been driven by the common core and NCLB waivers.

"I sometimes feel we're looking for a really simple solution for a really complex problem," says Delisle of accountability.

She used her remarks to highlight the second-term agenda for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, such as expanding early-education opportunities and getting teacher-education programs to improve. She also went deep into the bureaucratic weeds and talked about how the department is really working to streamline monitoring of states, which she detailed in this Q-and-A a year ago.

"I think we're doing a much better job of trying to be partners with states and districts," she said.

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