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Duncan, King, Democratic Senators: New ESEA Must Be Strong on Accountability

Congressional education leaders are said to be rolling up their sleeves and trying to finish a long, long stalled rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act over the next several weeks, in time to get it to the president's desk by the end of the year.

The hardest issue they have to tackle? Finding the sweet spot when it comes to accountability.

Essentially, a conference committee that includes Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., plus Reps. John Kline, R-Minn, and Bobby Scott, D-Va., will have to write a bill that includes enough protections for low-performing students that the administration feels comfortable signing it. 

But the bill will also need to make it through a very raucous House of Representatives filled with conservative members bent on rolling back the federal role on K-12. (And to be fair, Senate Republicans, including Alexander, aren't wild about a huge federal role either.)

As congressional aides work feverishly behind the scenes, accountability hawks are making their case: Thursday a trio of Democratic senators—Cory Booker of New Jersey, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts—who have been leading the charge on accountability throughout the reauthorization process—plus U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and incoming Essentially Secretary John King had a big event on Capitol Hill today to shine a spotlight on the issue.

Their essential argument: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed fifty years ago, is a civil rights law at heart, and this latest version has to continue that tradition. They say the new law must call for states to help schools with perennially low-student achievement, low graduation rates, and big achievement gaps.

"There has to be accountability back up the chain," Warren said. "The idea that we would pass a major piece of legislation about education and just shove it to the states and say 'Do what you want.' ... I think it's appalling."

(UPDATE: Carissa Miller, the deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the chiefs are glad to hear discussion of ESEA and want the legislation to strike the right balance between strong accountability and state flexibility.)

The Senate's NCLB rewrite bill, which passed with big bipartisan backing over the summer, has some strong transparency language. But it's got no teeth when it comes to accountability, said Nancy Zirkin, the executive director of The Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, who also spoke at the event.

But those accountability protections might actually end up getting weaker. The Senate legislation will now be reconciled with the Republican-only NCLB rewrite that scales back the federal role even further when it comes to prodding states to look out for struggling schools, and to close achievement gaps between poor and minority kids and other students.

Some background: Murphy, Booker, and Warren sponsored an amendment that would have beefed up federal protections for traditionally overlooked groups of students, required states to turn around their lowest performing schools, and bolstered the ability of the Education Department to oversee states' K-12 accountability plans. (Details here.)

The amendment failed, but not before garnering 41 votes from Democrats (plus one Republican, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio.) That's enough to force a filibuster, but it's unclear if Senate Democrats would really launch one. (After all, the underlying bill passed 81 to 17. Booker, Murphy, and Warren all voted against it, however.)

 "There's no use in passing an education bill if it's not a civil rights bill," Murphy said at the event today.

Here's the wonky thing: Lawmakers who represent majority-minority districts, and many folks in the civil rights community say privately (and sometimes publicly) that it was first the Obama administration who let the accountability toothpaste out the tube, so to speak.

The department's waivers from many of the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act let states combine English-language learners, special education students, and other historically underserved groups into "super subgroups." Former Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., an architect of NCLB, worried that that flexibility masked gaps in performance.

What's more, the department has arguably let the most populous state in the country—California—off the hook for two years in a row when it comes to accountability. (It's technical, but the department allowed the Golden State to use field tests with all its students—which can't be used for accountability—one year, and then gave it an accountability "pause" the following year.)

Duncan contended that doesn't think that the administration has walked away from its responsibilities when it comes to subgroup kids, citing all-time-high graduation rates. (Do you buy that argument, edu-researchers? Or are grad rates a lagging indicator when it comes to policy changes?)

Also notable: For those of you wondering what kind of acting Secretary King will be? This event on accountability is his very first event on the Hill.

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