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How Much Control Should States Have in the NCLB Rewrite?

During the third Senate education committee hearing on a No Child Left Behind Act overhaul, Republicans and Democrats sparred Tuesday over whether to include dedicated funding streams for specific education initiatives, or allow states to use federal dollars as they see fit.

"My own view is that the government ought to enable and encourage, not mandate, innovation," said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the committee. "It can do this well" by letting states decide for themselves how to use federal funds.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member on the panel, rejected the notion of eliminating dedicated funding arguing that the federal government can and should help invest in particular areas that simply wouldn't be possible at the state or local level.

"In many places, states and districts are already feeling tight budget constraints," Murray emphasized. "Without dedicated funding for innovations in STEM, literacy, arts, physical education, or other priorities, there's no guarantee that states would invest in solutions that can help close achievement and opportunity gaps."

Under Alexander's draft for rewriting the NCLB law, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 67 federal education programs would be eliminated or not reauthorized.

In addition, the draft would allow Title I dollars for the disadvantaged to follow students to the public school of their choice. It also would allow states to move 100 percent of their funding (as opposed to 50 percent under current law) between Title II, the big state teacher-quality grants, and Title IV, which funds grants for Safe and Healthy Students that target school climate, violence prevention, and mental health.

(You can read more about the specifics of the draft reauthorization here.)

Alexander noted that 98 percent of the federal dollars that go to higher education follow students to the schools they attend. "In K-12," he said, "the only money that follows students to the school they attend is the school lunch program."

Democrats generally dislike the policy of block-granting, or making funding portable. They argue that, among other things, big block grants difficult to measure grant performance and to hold state and local governments accountable for their decisions.

Alexander joked that maybe the reauthorization should require U.S. senators to fill out their own states' Title I applications, pointing to Tennessee's application, the hundreds of pages of which he had printed out and had sitting in a bulging binder next to him.

Reaction From Committee Members

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said that he worries about the capacity of rural and urban school districts completing applications for several of the federal grants currently offered, but wasn't convinced they should all be consolidated.

"I'm all for reducing programs, but of the program we have, which are the ones that evidence shows have actually made a difference?" Bennet asked. "Because that number is somewhere below 67 and somewhere above zero."

While the discussion abruptly veered off in a different direction, Promise Neighborhoods, School Improvement Grants, and Investing in Innovation got the most love from witnesses in general. Under Alexander's draft reauthorization, all of those programs either would be eliminated or not authorized and their funding rolled into a block grant.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said that Title I should require states to use a portion of the funding to pay for social workers, school nurses, and other programs and personnel that can provide wraparound services for students. That way, she said, schools would not have to scrape together funding from partnership and other non-federal grants to afford what she called "basic services."

Notably, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., was the only Republican committee member aside from Alexander who participated in the hearing.

Burr said that he appreciated that the current draft reauthorization collapses several of the federal education programs into one block-grant funding stream because it empowers states to use federal dollars where they need it the most.

"I think dedicated funding is fine as long as it comes with the flexibility of, 'You decide where to use it,'" Burr said.

Testing and Accountability

As occurred during the last hearing on teachers and leaders, the conversation invariably shifted back to how the ESEA reauthorization should deal with testing and accountability.

Alexander's draft currently includes two testing options: One option would keep the current slate of 17 annual tests intact, and the other would allow states to pretty much do whatever they wanted, including portfolios, grade-span tests, or competency-based education.

Under the draft, the bill would let states come up with their own accountability methods, within certain parameters.

In an interview after the hearing, Alexander agreed that nearly every witness that's testified during the three committee hearings on NCLB revision has recommended maintaining the annual testing requirement.

"I hear that from the witnesses, but I hear just as strongly that they do not like the federally defined consequences from the annual requirements," he said. "That suggests to me that what I'm hearing more of is: Keep the 17 federal tests, but let the states design the systems for deciding what to do about the results of the tests."

During closing remarks, Alexander talked at length about the accountability side of the issue. Here's some of what he had to say:

"The biggest question for me is on accountability. If we were to have federal tests, disaggregate the results, publish them ... then the question remains, who decides what to do? What is success, what is failure, and what do you do about that success and that failure? My bias is that [the federal government] can't do that. I think that while there are a great many, many good things that has come out of No Child Left Behind. One thing that hasn't worked very well is [defining] what's failed and what the consequences are."

What's Next?

Alexander is holding steady on his timeline for moving the reauthorization bill, and said after the hearing that he plans to clear the legislation out of committee by the end of February.

"What I would like to do is get a result by February and give the bill to [Majority Leader] Sen. [Mitch] McConnell and ask him to put it on the floor for a couple of weeks and have an open amendment process," he said after the hearing. "I think there are a lot of United States Senators who are not on the committee who would like to weigh in on this."

Some Democrats on the committee, however, have expressed reservations about Alexander's timeline, arguing that it may not leave room for the bipartisan process he's promised.

Meanwhile in the House, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., unveiled an NCLB rewrite bill that he says will clear the entire chamber by March. That legislation is based on the measure he was able to usher through the House in the 113th Congress, the Student Success Act. 

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