While Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) was presiding over a much more controversial hearing, the House Education and Workforce Committee quietly met to discuss one of the most divisive topics in K-12 education policy: the reauthorization of ESEA. This morning’s hearing and its six witnesses devoted over two hours to the two bills at the heart of Rep. John Kline’s (R-MN) ESEA reauthorization strategy: the Student Success Act and the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act. A markup of both bills will likely be scheduled soon, but any legislative movement beyond that is a crapshoot. The Senate’s reauthorization bill has not been scheduled for a floor vote, and there are significant differences between the Harkin-Enzi approach in the Senate (where bipartisan support is shaky, at best) and the Kline bills, which have no bipartisan support. All of this coupled with the presidential election signal that reauthorization will likely be delayed until the 113th Session of Congress (lucky number 13?).
So with that disclaimer, here are the hearing highlights:
Transparency is a policy everyone can get behind.
Throughout today’s hearing (which we live-tweeted @EducationSector), legislators on both sides of the aisle were quick to praise NCLB for emphasizing reporting of student achievement and disaggregated data by subgroup. Both Chairman Kline and ranking member George Miller (D-CA) referred to the law “turning on the lights” or “shining a light” on achievement gaps that had too often been overlooked by schools and districts (I guess they got the memo from Data Quality Campaign that data should be used as a “flashlight”).
And Congressman and witnesses all agreed that a commitment to reporting results must continue and expand with a new ESEA, including clear information for parents, teachers, administrators, elected officials, and the public around school performance, student outcomes and growth, and teacher effectiveness and the distribution of effective teachers. As Felicia Kazmier, an elementary art teacher in Colorado Springs said, “education shouldn’t be a mystery.” We couldn’t agree more.
No mention of the funding formula changes in the bill… just the ones that were left out.
Jimmy Cunningham, the superintendent of Hampton School District in Arkansas, used his testimony to bring up an obscure provision in the Title I funding formula untouched by the Kline bills. In allocating Title I funds, a weighted formula is used to account for district poverty. Depending on the district, either the concentration of students in poverty or the total number of students in poverty is used. So large suburban districts, like Fairfax County, VA, tend to receive a huge sum of Title I funding per eligible student despite the fact that the district has a relatively low percentage of poor students. Several Congressmen picked up on this portion of Cunningham’s testimony and took issue with the “number weighting” provision.
However, no one at the hearing took serious issue with the funding formula changes that are included in Kline’s legislation: ending the maintenance of effort (MOE) provisions in Title I and altering the Title II formula to place less emphasis on aid for high-poverty schools. As the Center for American Progress wrote in two recent reports, this has significant negative effects for low-income children and could reintroduce inequity into school funding – the very inequities ESEA was designed to resolve, as Delia Pompa from the National Council of La Raza addressed in her testimony. The Kline bills also propose restricting how Title II funds can be spent. Currently 38% of Title I funds are used for class-size reduction. Kline’s bill would cap that at 10%. Given that these critical formula changes are included in the legislation, it’s surprising that “number weighting” received more air time than they did at the hearing.
Federalism – not policy – is the point of contention.
As Alyson Klein noted in Ed Week’s Politics K-12 blog, Democrats and Republicans aren’t debating whether student growth should be measured or whether teachers should be evaluated in a way that is linked to students’ learning. Rather, they are fighting over what Washington requires states to do. Unsurprisingly, Tom Luna, the Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction, supported more discretion for states, arguing that NCLB makes innovation unnecessarily difficult and that efforts like the Common Core emerged despite – rather than because of – the federal government. On the other hand, Robert Balfanz, co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, warned that states need “guideposts” and “guardrails” from the feds. He cited the waivers as an example of this kind of checks and balances. The comments from peer reviewers improved the applications overall by focusing states on addressing weaker portions of their applications: how they would build capacity, obtain stakeholder buy-in, and ensure subgroup accountability.
What the right balance is between federal guideposts/guardrails and state flexibility is an open question. But what isn’t in question is that passage of a reauthorized ESEA depends on finding an answer.