With a weekend of reflection between me and the markup of the Harkin-Enzi ESEA Reauthorization Bill, I am caught up on sleep, but still coming to terms with the implications of last Thursday’s events. Yes, the bill passed out of committee 15-7, receiving only 3 Republican votes. But what did we really learn about the direction of federal K-12 education policy, the positions of key players, and the likelihood of reauthorization before 2012?
Before we dive into these questions though, it’s worth noting the biggest changes to the bill. The change getting the most attention, of course, is Senator Alexander’s amendment to add a 7th school improvement strategy for Persistently Low-Achieving Schools. The 7th option would allow schools to choose a state-designed improvement model, as long as the model was approved by the Secretary of Education. In my opinion, this actually wasn’t a big change because tucked away in one of the other six strategies – the “Restart” model – was a provision that allowed states to “create a new innovative school, as defined by the state.” So a state-designed strategy already existed in the bill.
The Alexander amendment aside, here’s my list of notable changes:
- Senator Franken’s amendment to allow computer-based adaptive testing in state accountability systems: under NCLB, students could only be tested on grade-level material, so it was impossible to use state tests to know whether students were performing multiple grade levels ahead or behind of where they should be.
- Senator Burr’s Title 2 funding equity amendment: despite the reluctance of Chairman Harkin to get into a fight over funding formulas (nothing pits Senators against one another like formulas where there are clear winners and losers), Senator Burr convinced the Committee to strip language guaranteeing states could get no less Title 2 formula funds than they did in 2001. Title 2 formula funding – which has typically supported professional development and class size reduction – would be mostly distributed based on the number of poor children in the state. I’m no expert, but seems like small states will lose out here. Of course, Title 2 (or the “Holiday Inn” as Senator Harkin called it) is not as large a pot of money as Title 1… but still a change worth following.
- Multiple principal-related amendments: Senator Hagan’s amendment ensured new principals hired in any school improvement strategy have a record of improving student achievement or participate in specialized training. Senator Franken added back a competitive grant for principal training and development. And Senators Bennet and Alexander added the provisions of the GREAT Act, creating Teacher and Principal Academies evaluated and funded based on graduates’ results in improving student performance.
And with that, I turn now to the lessons I learned from my first ESEA markup.
Senate Democrats care more about passing any bill than the details. HELP Committee Democrats had their priorities, but backed away from them to maintain bipartisan support. Of the 16 amendments withdrawn during markup, 11 came from Democrats. Senator Bennet, arguably the administration’s closest ally on the Committee, relented on performance targets for students and expanding federal intervention beyond the bottom 5% of schools. Senators Murray and Casey did not push for more early learning provisions in the bill. And so on. As a result, the bill is much closer to what Republicans want than Democrats, yet most Republicans didn’t even vote for it. This sets the stage for the GOP to press for additional concessions on the Senate floor… and of course, in conference with the House. Just how far are Democrats willing to be pushed? And is that point far enough to get enough Senate, let alone House Republicans, on board?
Waivers work. No matter what your opinion may be on the Obama administration’s ESEA waivers, they have clearly spurred the Senate into action. Throughout the markup, there were repeated references to the waivers and a desire to get something done in Congress before any waivers take effect. However, Senator Alexander did not offer his amendment to prohibit conditional waivers.
Republicans are right. Committee Democrats repeatedly added back programs to the reauthorization bill. I’m not saying these programs aren’t worthwhile or effective, just that Democrats clearly weren’t as concerned about “streamlining” the legislation. Senators Bingaman, Franken, Casey, Blumenthal, Hagan, and Whitehouse all introduced amendments aimed at particular interests or programs, like school libraries, well-rounded education, gifted and talented programs, expanding learning time, financial literacy, and school technology.
Senator Patty Murray is a data wonk. It’s not often you hear Senators talking about cross-tabulated reporting of data, data standards, and interoperability of state data systems. Thanks to Senator Murray, schools will not only report the performance of black students, low-income students, and other subgroups on assessments, but they’ll also report the performance of students who are black and low-income. Sweet.
Respect from both sides for Senator Michael Bennet. Whether you agree with his views or not, it’s a welcome change to have a Senator with experience (and credibility) in school administration and to hear one speak with such passion about education and doing what’s best for students.
Thank goodness for Senate staff. Too often it was painfully clear no one knew what they were talking about. The debate over free access to early college high schools is a great example. Somehow Pell grants got involved… even though high school students aren’t eligible. Kudos to the Committee staff for keeping the markup mostly on-track.
A last chance for states? As the saying goes, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. When it comes to standards, assessments, and school accountability, there is consensus to give states more flexibility and discretion, rolling back many federal requirements like AYP and school interventions. This strategy didn’t work so well the first time, under the Clinton-version of ESEA, the Improving America’s Schools Act. If states don’t hold up their end of the bargain a second time… then what? States should take the opportunity to design their own accountability systems – whether through a waiver or a reauthorized ESEA – to prove that they can take the lead in improving student achievement without gaming their own system, watering-down standards and curriculum, and preserving the status quo. State-led initiatives like Common Core demonstrate that states can do it, but whether they follow through without NCLB around remains a larger question.