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Arne Duncan Urges Parents to Weigh In on NCLB Rewrite; Will It Work?

Annapolis, Md.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged parents at a Maryland middle school Wednesday to air their concerns about a lack of resources and accountability in a bill introduced this week in the U.S. House of Representatives to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act.  

But some of the biggest applause lines at the event were from parents who wanted to talk about another issue: testing and the Common Core State Standards. 

"I'm really afraid that the PARCC assessments are going to take away from my child's time in the classroom," one mother said to the education secretary at the Parent Teacher Association town hall at Wiley H. Bates Middle School in Annapolis. (She was referring to common-core-aligned tests being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of two consortia devising such assessments.)

And another parent asked, "Why are we doing too much too soon on aggressive PARCC testing in schools? ... Can't we take some time to examine this before we use our children as guinea pigs in the classroom?"

Another said she "completely supported" common core, but wondered what kinds of supports would be available to help her son, a student in special education, gain access to the curriculum and assessments.

Duncan told them there are going to be "bumps and hiccups" when it comes to rolling out new common-core-aligned tests. "I can't promise it will be perfect." But he noted that field tests across the country "went pretty darn well last year."

As for special education resources, he said the Obama administration's proposed fiscal 2016 budget seeks a $175 million increase for special education state grants (which is pretty small considering it's a more than $11.5 billion program, but it's something).

Bipartisanship and NCLB

On the NCLB rewrite, Duncan is angry that the process in the House isn't bipartisan. His dislike for the bill is no surprise since the White House threatened to veto a nearly identical piece of legislation back in 2013 that passed the House on a totally party-line vote. 

He's also miffed about remarks that Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee made earlier Wednesday.

Duncan didn't say this specifically, but he may have been referring to some inside baseball here: Alexander's plan for moving the bill through the Senate. Alexander said earlier at the Brookings Institution that, for now, he's planning to run a "bipartisan open process" and is looking for the 60 votes necessary to get the bill off the Senate floor. 

It would be great to have Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the committee, on board from the get-go, Alexander added. But if she and Alexander can't come to an agreement early on, he will be looking to get help from other Democrats to advance the bill out of the Senate. Murray, and the Obama administration, could hold their support until a House-Senate conference committee.   

So what's Duncan's specific beef with the House bill? 

Duncan told the parents at the town hall he is really unhappy that the bill would include "less money for kids that need the most help," which is probably a reference to the fact that the bill would lock in authorization at close to the same amount schools are getting this year. Authorization levels aren't binding—Congress can always funnel more (or a lot less) money to a program than what's in law—but they do send a signal. 

Duncan's also dismayed that the bill would include "no more money for prekindergarten." It's worth pointing out that the underlying law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, has never really had a major preschool focus. So a major new preschool program in ESEA reauthorization would likely amount to something new. 

And Duncan is disappointed that the bill doesn't seek to "cap" testing—which is not something the administration has specifically called for, either. Instead, Duncan has backed the idea of working with states and districts to take a close look at the number of tests they require and get rid of those that aren't unnecessary. 

It may be only a matter of time before such language on testing makes it into the ESEA reauthorization bill—Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., have introduced a bill that would allow states and districts to "audit" the number of tests they require and pare back those that aren't helpful.

Duncan has not however, made a big deal of the fact the Kline bill wouldn't require teacher evaluation through test scores, which was his number one critique of a (bipartisan) NCLB rewrite effort back in 2011. 

Maybe his Duncan's strongest argument against the Kline bill, at least from the perspective of the civil rights community: Under the bill, there would be "less accountability for student outcomes, less accoutability for achievement gaps, less accountability for tax dollars. ... I think our kids in our country deserve something better than that," he told the parents.

And Duncan is counting on groups like the PTA to change that. "We need your voices, your leadership, your ability to challenge us to do the right thing for kids. I don't think Washington can fix itself."

So will we see a big, nationwide pushback on the GOP approach to overhauling the NCLB law and its plan to significantly roll back the federal footprint on accountability and resources? Or are many parents really more concerned about common core and testing at this point? Comments section is open! 

UPDATE: Kline's reponse to Duncan's critiques? "The secretary should be working with us to move the country in a new direction, not using misleading rhetoric to further undermine the reform process," he said in a statement.

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