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An Alternative NCLB (nee ESEA) Blueprint

Yesterday, several key Senate Republicans announced a five-bill package laying out their vision for overhauling No Child Left Behind (nee ESEA). The proposals offered by Senators Lamar Alexander, Richard Burr, Johnny Isakson, and Mark Kirk sketch a dramatically leaner federal role than does the Obama administration's "ESEA blueprint" (which itself represented a big step back from NCLB circa 2001).

The GOP proposals would retain strong federal requirements regarding transparency, annual assessment, and disaggregation of data; that Title I dollars be used to serve low-income children; and that states take steps to address their worst-performing Title I schools. But they would streamline the Title I plans that states submit to the Secretary of Education for approval, put an end to NCLB's ill-conceived and paper-driven "highly qualified teacher" provisions, provide immense flexibility when it comes to spending Title II and Title IV dollars, have Washington stop requiring states to label every school as making or not making "adequate yearly progress," and get the feds out of the school improvement business.

One key Republican Senate staffer explained, "The administration gave us a blueprint. We think this is reflective of [that] in a way Republicans can support. The quiet conversations need to speed up. States and school districts need relief now and we have an obligation to act. Here's where we want to be. It's time to put up or shut up. We're saying, 'Here's how we'd fix NCLB, how would you do it?'"

The accountability bill would instruct states to establish college-career standards, without telling them what that entails. It would continue to require annual assessments in reading and math in grades three through eight, and once in high school, as well as in science, and it would maintain disaggregation reporting requirements. States would be required to maintain a uniform system of accountability, which could incorporate growth rates or graduation rates or other measures, and to identify at least the lowest performing 5 percent of Title I schools. The law would require states to use one of six turnaround models for those schools (a modified version of the four current models, a rural model which offered leeway, and one that states could devise with an okay from ED).

The Title II and Title IV consolidation doesn't entail overall cuts, though that'll provide little relief to the DC lobbyists and associations who love their pet programs. States and districts would be able to shift Title II and Title IV dollars back and forth, and to move those dollars into Title I, but--unlike in the House Republicans' flexibility proposal--Title I dollars could not be shifted elsewhere.

The proposal consolidates based on fiscal year 2011 spending levels, collapsing 59 programs into two pots and give states and districts near-total leeway in spending those funds. The new Title II would total about $3.3 billion and would include all the various programs that currently sit in Title II, including those that are academic or involve professional development (e.g. programs for smaller learning communities, libraries, advanced credentialing, women's educational equity, history programs, and so forth). The Title IV pot would total about $1.5 billion for programs related to student safety and health (block granting current programs for alcohol abuse, mental health, physical education, combating domestic violence, and so on... and, oh yeah, the historic whaling program is here too).

The charter bill is modeled almost entirely on the House's just-passed charter bill, except that it will also allow charter management organizations to compete directly for federal funds. Right now, only states or districts can compete for those funds; under this provision, a CMO like KIPP could compete for direct federal grants.

In a clear shot at Secretary Duncan's much-maligned plan to announce "conditional waivers," the Alexander/Burr waiver bill would clarify section 9401 of NCLB to make clear that it is intended to provide a state-driven waiver process and not a vehicle for imposing new administration policy requirements. As one GOP Senate staffer explained, "The Secretary can issue waivers or set up a peer review process, ensure that states still do what they should be doing, and deny a waiver if he reasonably thinks it won't improve student achievement...but he can't attach conditions that couldn't win legislative support."

Remember how that vaunted edu-bipartisanship melted away in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio this year when Republicans pushed forward with, well, Republican reform proposals? Once again, Democrats for Education Reform were quick to blast the Republicans, charging that they would "set education reform back by more than two decades." Charles Barone, DFER director of federal policy, accused Alexander et al. of "capitulat[ing]" to the "education establishment" and "pull[ing] the rug out from under parents and state and local advocates across the political spectrum."

DFER archly opined, "Whose bidding [the Senators] are doing here is unclear. But it is surely not that of groups like the Children's Defense Fund, the National Council of La Raza, [or] the U.S. Chamber of Commerce." I can't decide whether I find it funnier that DFER expects Republicans to do the bidding of the Children's Defense Fund, or that they're now complaining that Republicans aren't doing the bidding of the Chamber of Commerce.

Turns out that those who chided conservatives for critiquing the Obama administration's edu-proposals for violating the "historical bipartisanship" don't have any such concerns about Democratic attacks on GOP proposals. That was all just posturing. This is a useful reminder that Democrats for Education Reform--swell people who like children and dogs--are, well, Democrats, who ultimately prefer a more expansive federal role than do most conservatives. (Note that StudentsFirst's Michelle Rhee, often depicted as the rightmost of the Democratic reformers, embraced the President's newest edu-stimulus proposal.) Nothing wrong with any of that, but let's stop imagining that big, serious disagreements about the role of Washington are going to melt away when it comes to schooling--or that anyone should expect conservative policymakers to obediently embrace DFER's agenda.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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