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Democrats Voice Concerns, Stakeholders Have Mixed Reactions to NCLB Draft

While stakeholder reaction to the No Child Left Behind Act discussion draft unveiled Tuesday by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., was fairly tempered, two very important Democrats voiced early concerns over what they consider a lack of accountability in the proposal from the Senate education committee chairman.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member of the Senate education committee, who will be Alexander's sparring partner during the reauthorization process, said Wednesday that she was disappointed in several policies that were included in the draft and by one that wasn't.

"I have serious concerns about many aspects of Chairman Alexander's bill, especially its consequences for children in struggling schools that aren't reaching high standards, for accountability measures that ensure taxpayer dollars are translating into educational gains, and for investments we absolutely must make in early-childhood education and other areas that will help our children and country succeed," Murray said.

That long list is congressional speak for the elimination of the School Improvement Grant (a pre-Obama-era competitive grant that funds turnaround efforts for chronically failing schools); the inclusion of an option that would allow states to test in certain grade spans only; and the absence of language that would increase access to early-childhood education—something Murray has made clear to Alexander she wants as part of the overhaul.

While Murray, a Democrat, is in the minority in the newly elected Republican Senate, she'll still play a crucial role in the reauthorization process, one that Alexander pledged will be a bipartisan effort.

As Alexander explained yesterday on the Senate floor, he'll need at least 60 votes in order to clear a measure through the chamber, and that means wooing some moderate Democrats. Murray, an ace negotiator, is not generally considered moderate, but if Alexander can find a way to get her support, he'll have an easier time corralling votes.

The other key Democrat in the NCLB reauthorization process is President Barack Obama, who can use his veto authority to prevent legislation from becoming law if it's not to his liking. And to the extent that U.S. Secretary of Education  Arne Duncan acts as barometer for the president, Alexander's discussion draft gives him pause. 

"I appreciate that Sen. Alexander plans to discuss his draft with his colleagues and to solicit public feedback, but I also am concerned that his proposal makes optional far too much of what the law needs to ensure the promise of its title," Duncan said Wednesday. "There is much we can debate in reauthorizing this law—and areas for productive compromise—but Congress must not abdicate its responsibility to help all children succeed, must protect our most vulnerable children, and must build on what we've learned about supporting bold state and local innovation."

The two national teachers' unions are some of the most important (and powerful) stakeholders that will try to shape the draft going forward.

The 3 million-member National Education Association was happy to see the grade-span testing option included in the draft—something it's been pushing for years.

"We need to ensure there are appropriate safeguards by the federal government to ensure all students are receiving a 21st century education regardless of their ZIP code," said Mary Kusler, director of government relations for the NEA. "But we are pleased to see measures that increase the flexibility of educators and their districts to meet the needs of their individual students, especially those with the greatest needs."

Some potential sticking points? In the past, the NEA has opposed Title I portability and block grants. Alexander's draft would allow both.

The 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers has also been a big proponent of grade-span testing, but on Wednesday, it shifted gears to join the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank long associated with the Obama administration, in proposing a sort of compromise on testing.

Annual testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school should be maintained, it proposed. But scores from the exams should only factor into state accountability systems once in each grade span (elementary, middle, and high school).

Meanwhile, the Council of Chief State School Officers sees a lot to like in the proposal, particularly if lawmakers decide to go with the second option of keeping NCLB's testing regime largely intact, but allowing for local assessment systems.

"Overall, we're pretty happy with where they're going. ... Option (B) follows our principles," said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the CCSSO. He's hoping though, that Congress is able to add more specificity about what kinds of local assessment systems would be acceptable. "We wouldn't want any district to propose anything as a pilot. We want to make sure the pilot is something we want to try out," he said.

CCSSO generally likes how the bill deals with school turnarounds. The measure would get rid of the Obama administration's signature SIG program and not include any new requirements when it comes to intervention strategies. But Minnich realizes that level of leeway may raise eyebrows among other organizations— and he's open to more specific proposals on how school improvement dollars are used. At the same time, Minnich would like to see more money for state assessments, which are only authorized at the current level, about $380 million.

"We think what we've done is outline what the compromise looks like," Minnich said.

Folks at AASA, the School Superintendents Association, are still scouring the subtleties of the bill and not endorsing or opposing it at the moment.

"The draft is a strong step in the right direction toward striking a more appropriate balance between the federal role in education and the importance of state and school leadership," said Noelle Ellerson, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA. "It goes in the right direction of reining in the federal overreach of No Child Left Behind."

She emphasized, however, "we want the discussion draft to be the opening to a dialogue that includes stakeholders, advocates and policymakers on both sides of the aisle."

The Education Trust, which looks out for poor and minority kids, was happy to see that there's at least some nod to keeping NCLB's current testing schedule.

"There's an emerging consensus among educator, civil rights groups and the business community on the importance of maintaining statewide annual tests," said Daria Hall, the group's director of K-12 policy development. "We think this bill at least creates some space for this consensus to be reflected, but only with some really important changes."

For instance, she said, states would have to continue to break out student achievement data by subgroups, just like they do under NCLB. But there would be no expectation that they flag schools with big achievement gaps, or intervene in schools that are doing well with most students, but allowing some populations - like English-language learners - to fall behind.  

That sounds much milder than the criticism Ed Trust and other civil rights organizations hurled at previous proposals to renew the law that also would have significantly scaled back NCLB's accountability provisions.

But, Hall said, the "context has changed" because of the Obama administration's waivers from mandates of the NCLB law. "There  has to be a right-sizing of the federal role. The department has been, through waivers, really involved in the minutiae and losing the forest for the trees."

Still, she added, "We can't swing in the opposite direction and not allow the secretary of education to do anything." For example, she said, "Margaret Spellings [President George W. Bush's education secretary] used her authority to make states stop lying about their graduation rates."

One group not happy with Alexander's draft is the Leadership Conference on Civil and  Human Rights, which demanded stronger accountability measures in a press release Thursday.

"Now is not the time to make a U-turn in holding states and school districts accountable for providing a quality education to all children," said Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference. "Unfortunately, Chairman Alexander's opening proposal would send us back to a dark time in our nation when schools across the country, operating with no federal oversight, could freely ignore the needs of disadvantaged students."

Alyson Klein contributed to this story.

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