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Civil Rights Groups, Teachers' Union Spar Over Accountability Amendment

The largest national teachers' union and civil rights groups are sparring over a forthcoming vote on a Democratic amendment that would increase accountability in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act overhaul moving through the U.S. Senate.

For months, civil rights groups have been pushing for tighter safeguards and have said they will not back the Senate bill if such protections aren't added. 

The Democratic amendment, which was introduced Tuesday by Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Chris Coons, D-Del., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was specifically designed to address those concerns.

Among other things, the amendment would require states to establish measurable state-designed goals for all students and separately for each of the categories of subgroups of students. And those goals would be based on a set of defined indicators.

But the 3-million member National Education Association sent a letter Tuesday evening to senators urging them to oppose the amendment.

Why?

It's worried that the amendment would "continue the narrow and punitive focus of [the No Child Left Behind Act] and overidentify schools in need of improvement, reducing the ability of states to actually target help on schools that need the most assistance to help students."

The letter notes that the NEA agrees with the intent of the amendment, in that states should be required to specifically factor subgroup performance into their system of school identification. But that overall system, they letter states, should be decided by the state, not the federal government.

The letter also says that the union supports the requirement in the amendment that states identify the bottom 5 percent of its schools and those with high school graduation rates lower than 67 percent. But, the letter states, "we do not agree with the proposal to automatically identify all schools for intervention who miss or narrowly miss subgroup targets for two-year or the other changes in the amendment."

You can read the letter here.

It wasn't long after that letter was published that Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, shot back with some choice words for the NEA.

"Imagine the surprise of the broad coalition of national civil rights, disabilities, and business organizations when their proposal to require schools to act whenever any group of children is not progressing on a combination of those measures was was immediately labeled by the National Education Association as a 'preservation of the test and punish culture of No Child Left Behind through a backdoor Adequate Yearly Progress-type approach,'" she wrote in a blog posted to the organization's web site.

"Clearly, NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia wants to claim the mantle of civil rights and social justice—words that are sprinkled throughout her speeches—while simultaneously freeing her members of the responsibilities of improving outcomes for the most vulnerable children."

The disagreement is notable not because it will sink the amendment when it comes up for a vote (likely later Wednesday). Democrats don't expect the amendment to pass anyway. But they are trying to cobble together a strong showing of support with 35 or more Democrats voting in favor to make it clear that strengthening accountability is a top priority going into conference with the House on its bill.

That way, along with the dozen or so Republicans they anticipate voting against the bill no matter what, they'd be able to block final passage of a conferenced bill should it not include stronger accountability language.

With the NEA lobbying for a "no" vote, getting to 35 will likely prove trickier than originally imagined. 

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