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Senate Education Leaders Unveil Bipartisan Compromise to Rewrite ESEA

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., unveiled a bipartisan bill Tuesday to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that the two have been brokering for more than two months.

As Politics K-12 reported here first, the compromise measure includes education policies that are attractive to both sides of the aisle in making over the law, the current version of which is the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Senate education committee is slated to mark up the bill Tuesday, April 14 at 10 a.m., when lawmakers in both chambers will be back in Washington after a two-week legislative recess.

"We have found remarkable consensus about the urgent need to fix this broken law, and also on how to fix it," Alexander said in the statement. "We look forward to a thorough discussion and debate in the Senate education committee next week."

Murray added that while there is still work to be done, the agreement is "a strong step in the right direction that helps students, educators, and schools, gives states and districts more flexibility while maintaining strong federal guardrails, and helps make sure all students get the opportunity to learn, no matter where they live, how they learn, or how much money their parents make."

The markup, during which members of the education committee will offer amendments try to eliminate language from or add language to the compromise measure to alter it more to their liking, will be a delicate process that's sure to test the politicking skills of both Alexander and Murray.

Republicans have the numbers to approve or shoot down any amendment that's offered. But with Alexander and Murray having the expressed goal of preserving the bipartisan nature of the bill, there will likely be a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiating over which amendments will get a vote during the markup and which will be saved for Senate floor debate.

You can read a summary of the Alexander/Murray compromise here and the text of the bill here. And you can compare it to Alexander's original, more conservative offering here.

So what's in this 600-page grand compromise? Let's start with accountability:

As we reported last week, the proposal would not allow Title I dollars for low-income students to follow them to the school of their choice, a Republican-backed policy known as "Title I portability." That's a big win for Murray, and especially for the Obama administration, which has all but said it would veto any bill that included such a provision.

The law would maintain the annual federal testing schedule: Currently, states are required to test students every year in math and English/language arts in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and also in science once in grades 3 through 5, once in grades 6 through 8, and once in high school. States would have the option of using one big summative test or lots of smaller test essentially combined to reflect a single summative assessment.

Alexander's original draft included two testing options: stick with the annual testing regimen, or give states lots of leeway in how they assess students. Though the second option isn't included in the negotiated bill, it does include language that would provide some additional flexibility on testing through a limited pilot program that would allow states and school districts to develop innovative assessments.

States would also still be responsible for reporting disaggregated data for subgroups of students, including minorities, low-income students, English-learners, and those with disabilities.

And while the negotiated compromise would require states to use that information in their accountability systems, it would give them a ton of leeway in crafting those systems, including how the tests and data are used.

"Basically, our agreement continues important measurements of the academic progress of students, but restores to states, local school districts, teachers, and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about improving student achievement," Alexander said in the press release. "This should produce fewer and more appropriate tests."

Alexander had been leaning toward that idea for a while now, despite Murray arguing during previous committee hearings that states need to be held accountable for the billions of taxpayer dollars that they're sent each year.

States would also be required to include graduation rates in their accountability systems, one measure of postsecondary education or workforce readiness (like college enrollment rates, for example), and English proficiency rates for English-learners. In addition, they could include any other measure of student and school performance they please, like the percent of students taking an Advanced Placement test, for example.

The U.S. Secretary of Education would have 90 days to approve a state accountability plan unless the U.S. Department of Education could present "substantial evidence" that "clearly demonstrates" that the plan doesn't meet the bill's requirements.

States would still have to identify low-performing schools, but the bill isn't specific about just how many schools would need to be targeted. (Side note: That's a big difference from the NCLB law waivers, which call for states to identify 5 percent of very-low-performing schools for dramatic interventions, plus another 10 percent with big achievement gaps or other problems.)

States would still have a dedicated funding stream for school improvement efforts (up to 4 percent, if you want to get specific), but the Obama administration's School Improvement Grant models would be out the window. In fact, the language specifically prohibits the secretary of education from "mandating, prescribing, or defining the specific steps school districts and states must take to improve those schools."

Instead, school districts would be in charge of designing evidence-based interventions. The measure would, however, require states to monitor those interventions and assist school districts if their turnaround strategies prove ineffective.

What about standards?

As for standards, the bill simply outlines that states must establish "challenging academic standards for all students," and, as expected, it name-checks the Common Core State Standards and clarifies that the federal government can play no role in the process of states choosing standards.

Here's how the summary explains it:

"The bill affirms that states decide what academic standards they will adopt, without interference from Washington. The federal government may not mandate or incentivize states to adopt or maintain any particular set of standards, including Common Core. States will be free to decide what academic standards they will maintain in their states."

What about teachers?

The bill would maintain a big formula grant that helps meet each district's needs assessment. There's one alteration worth pointing out: States would still be able to use the funding to reduce class sizes, but only "to an evidence-based level." The current law doesn't include that stipulation.

Under the compromise, states would no longer be required to develop and implement teacher-evaluation systems (as under the waivers), though they could if they wanted. And as was widely expected, the "highly qualified teacher" definition and requirements to staff all core classes with such teachers would be eliminated.

Meanwhile, the bill wouldn't authorize the Teacher Incentive Fund as-is, but it includes a very similar provision that would train and prepare teachers and principals.

The bill would also provide incentives to states and school districts to implement policies to significantly improve instruction for English-learners, including effective professional development for teachers and parent and community engagement practices.

In addition, the bill would authorize a comprehensive state literacy program, which has been a big priority for Murray, since funding for the Striving Readers and Early Reading First programs has been on and off the chopping block since 2011.

Importantly, as was the case in Alexander's original conservative draft of the NCLB rewrite, funding for Title II for teachers and Title IV for school climate issues, which includes the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, would be 100 percent tranferable between the two. Under currently law those titles are only 50 percent transferable.

During committee hearings earlier this year, Democrats pushed back on too much block-granting, arguing that programs that train teachers and principals, for example, should have dedicated streams of funding.

What about charter schools?

The bill would create three competitive grants for the charters field to:

  • Fund states to start new charter schools and replicate or expand existing high-quality charter schools.
  • Fund public or private nonprofit entities that use creative methods of enhancing credit to finance the acquisition, construction, or renovation of facilities for charter schools.
  • Fund charter-management organizations to replicate or expand high-quality charter schools.

The measure would also provide incentives for states to adopt stronger charter school authorizing practices, increase charter school transparency, and improve community engagement in the implementation and operation of each charter school.

What about early-childhood education?

As we reported last week, the negotiated measure would also give a nod to early-childhood education, a priority for Democrats, by listing it as an allowable use of funding for a broad swath of programs in the ESEA.

We also reported that the measure would likely authorize a competitive-grant program that would allow states to better coordinate their early-childhood education programs. That language is not included in the bill released Tuesday by Alexander and Murray, though it could still appear in what's known as the manager's amendment, which we'll see on Tuesday, or get included during the amendment process during markup.

What about other interesting tidbits?

The negotiated bill would:

  • Specifically prohibit the education secretary from mandating additional requirements for states or school districts seeking waivers from federal law;
  • Allow rural schools more flexibility in how they use federal funds;
  • Prioritize grants to evidence-based magnet school programs;
  • Provide a formula and competitive grant to support programs for Native American students;
  • Alter the formula for Impact Aid in order to speed up payments to school districts;
  • Keep the maintenance of effort provision, which requires states to keep up their own funding at a particular level in order to tap federal Title I funds, but give states and school districts more flexibility in how they meet their required level of funding;
  • Increase safeguards for homeless students by, among other things, ensuring that school district liaisons have the necessary time and training to fulfill their responsibilities, increasing support for unaccompanied youths, and improving provisions designed to increase school stability for homeless students.

What's the early reaction?

Generally speaking, the early reaction to the compromise is positive.

Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers called it "an excellent bipartisan bill." And though he specifically called it a "starting point," he also emphasized that it reflects the key priorities of his organization and would "provide our states with the long-term stable federal policy they need to continue making progress for all students."

The American Federation of Teachers also was quick to get behind the bill.

AFT president Randi Weingarten said she sees "a glimmer of hope in this reauthorized bill."

"Their framework restores ESEA's original intent of mitigating poverty and addressing education equity," said Weingarten. "It moves away from the increasingly counterproductive focus on sanctions, high-stakes tests, federalized teacher evaluations and school closings. And it will help return the joy of teaching and learning that's been missing as a result of testing and test-prep fixation in too many classrooms."

Even the civil rights community was cautiously optimistic.

Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said she's pleased that it takes into account many of her concerns though she is still wary about preserving the federal role, equitable distribution of resources, and data collection and reporting for vulnerable students.

"The devil is in the details, but we're encouraged that we can make this bill better in the mark-up and on the Senate floor," she added.

The Obama administration weighed in on the proposal as well, calling the compromise "an important step."

Here's the full statement of White House press secretary Josh Earnst:

As Congress continues its work, President Obama will continue to insist on providing our schools with greater flexibility to invest in what works, making sure that teachers aren't confined to teaching to the test, putting resources behind innovation in our education system, and expanding opportunities for America's children to attend high-quality preschool.  We believe that any bill should ensure that teachers and parents know how their schools are doing every year, reject harmful proposals that would let states take away funding from schools that need it most, and make sure we remain committed to closing troubling achievement and opportunity gaps in America's schools and driving progress in those that are the lowest-performing.

Duncan also applauded Alexander and Murray for working together to craft a bipartisan measure, and in a lengthy statement outlined several of his priorities for what a final rewrite of the NCLB law should look like.  Some of those priorities include preventing funding cuts, closing achievement gaps, providing more flexibility for innovation, and supporting teachers.

"We must do more to expand opportunity for the most vulnerable children, including low-income students, racial and ethnic subgroups, students with disabilities, and English-language learners," he said. "At a time of vital progress for vulnerable students, we must work to continue that progress. That means in schools where groups of students are not getting the education they deserve, there must be meaningful action to improve student learning; and we must provide more resources and ask for bold action in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools."

Alyson Klein and Stephen Sawchuk contributed to this story.

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