ESEA Reauthorization: Everyone’s cards are on the table. Now let’s make a deal.

Democrats across and beyond the nation’s capital—in the Administration,
on Capitol
Hill
, in advocacy
groups
, and in think
tanks
—are up in arms about the ESEA reauthorization
proposals
released by House GOP leaders on Friday. Or at least they are pretending to be.
While they contained a few surprises, the House bills were pretty much as one
would expect: significantly to the right of both the Senate Harkin-Enzi bill
and the package put forward by Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and his
colleagues. In the parlance that we’ve been using at Fordham for three
years now
, the House GOP embodies the views of the Local Controllers,
Senator Alexander embraced Reform Realism, and Harkin-Enzi represents a
mishmash of ideas from the Army of the Potomac
and the System Defenders.

But while there are significant differences among the
players, a clear path toward a workable, maybe even bipartisan, package is
still visible. In short: all roads lead to Lamar. Not only does the Alexander
package represent smart policy, it also serves as a sort of mid-point between
the Senate bill that passed out of committee and the House GOP bill that is
likely to do the same. Let’s tackle the five big issues:

  • Requirements
    for standards and tests.
    The Administration and the Senate (including
    supporters of both the Harkin-Enzi and Alexander measures) want states to adopt
    standards that indicate college and career readiness; the House Republicans
    don’t. The real issue at stake is not just differing views of big, pushy Uncle
    Sam but also the new Common Core standards initiative, and whether federal
    policy should encourage (or even coerce) states to participate. The House GOP
    bill comes out swinging, stating that “the Secretary shall not attempt to
    influence, incentivize, or coerce state participation” in any work on common
    standards or tests. On the other hand, the same bill also says states must
    develop accountability systems that “ensure that all public school students
    graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary education or the workforce
    without the need for remediation.” That amounts to college and career
    readiness, right? Proponents of the Common Core should simply swallow their
    pride, and accept the House language. It doesn’t really matter, anyway; with
    forty-six states already on board, those of us who support the Common Core
    should have a very quiet victory party and then move on to hoping that at least
    one of the two test-building consortia devises a workable assessment system.

      Where the House GOP gets it wrong is in scrapping the
      requirement that states test students in science. Reducing transparency around
      science achievement isn’t a smart way to promote flexibility or cost savings;
      current law is fine on that point. Indeed, the more Washington substitutes transparency
      for regulation, the more data it should insist be transparent—and more it
      should want those data to span as much of the curriculum as possible, not just
      reading and math.

      • Federal
        mandates around state accountability systems
        . No Child Left Behind famously
        required states to adopt the “Adequate Yearly Progress” measure for identifying
        failing schools. Today, nobody wants to keep AYP; the question is how
        much leeway to give states
        when creating their next-generation systems. The
        Administration’s waiver policy allows states to propose radically different
        approaches—but they must still consider subgroup performance and must set
        annual targets for all schools (and groups) to hit. Harkin-Enzi concurs on
        subgroups but leaves out the annual targets; instead, states must expect
        schools to make “continuous progress.” (For that alleged crime by the Senators,
        many reformers and civil rights groups cried bloody murder.) Alexander goes a
        step further, leaving it to the states to figure out how to “differentiate”
        among schools, though they still must consider the performance of “categories”
        of students. And the House GOP goes the farthest by prohibiting the Department
        of Education from dictating the contours of state accountability systems at all
        (though still requiring states to evaluate schools based on the performance of
        subgroups).

          Alexander’s language represents a
          reasonable middle ground, and it’s not bad. States must establish “a system of
          identifying and differentiating among all public elementary schools and
          secondary schools in the State based on student academic achievement and any
          other factors determined appropriate by the State [that] also takes into
          account achievement gaps…and overall performance of all students and of each
          category of students.” That gives the states clear guidance and plenty of room
          for flexibility, but maintains the focus on the performance of disadvantaged
          students. Next?

          • Federally
            mandated interventions in failing schools
            . Here there’s more agreement than
            may meet the eye. Nobody wants to continue NCLB’s notorious (and
            ineffectual)“cascade of sanctions” for faltering schools:  choice for kids in schools “in need of
            improvement”; supplemental services for kids stuck in schools in “corrective
            action”; more stringent demands for those in need of “restructuring.” And
            nobody wants to force states to intervene in schools that are merely mediocre.
            (Which isn’t to say states should leave them be, especially if their students
            have no viable alternatives. Remember, this is about federal policy.) The question is whether states—to keep receiving
            federal dollars—must do something about really awful schools at the bottom. The
            final Harkin-Enzi bill includes a compromise with Lamar Alexander to offer
            states and districts a wider range of options for intervening in their five
            percent worst schools. (That range is wider than Senator Harkin—or the
            Administration—may have preferred.) The House GOP bill, on the other hand,
            merely asks states to develop a “system for school improvement for
            low-performing” Title I schools and to make sure districts “implement
            interventions in such schools that are designed to address such schools’
            weaknesses.”

              Personally, I like the House
              approach, since the Federal government doesn’t have the expertise or capacity
              to enforce a system of sanctions anyway. But that also means this is another
              symbolic debate; it doesn’t really matter what Congress writes into law, since
              it will be impossible to implement. So adopting the compromise Senate language
              wouldn’t be the end of the world.

              • Teacher
                effectiveness
                . There is a bundle of questions in play here: Should Congress
                scrap the “highly qualified teachers” mandate? Should it replace it with a
                tougher requirement that states and/or districts develop rigorous teacher
                evaluation systems? Should it mandate the “equitable distribution of teachers”?
                Should it require such an equitable distribution within districts by tweaking
                Title I’s “comparability” rule? On most of these issues, the House GOP plan is
                (predictably) less demanding than the Senate. Unlike Harkin-Enzi, it would
                scrap the HQT mandate while eliminating any federal efforts to redistribute
                teachers (via “comparability” or otherwise). 
                Alexander’s plan does the same. On teacher evaluations—a genuine
                surprise--however, the House would
                require them (at either the state or district level), while the Senate would
                simply provide competitive funds for such systems.

                  This might be the toughest area
                  around which to forge common ground. The unions will fight to eliminate the
                  evaluation mandate, and few “local control” Republicans will push back, I
                  suspect. So expect it to get tossed. The HQT mandate is an abomination, beloved
                  by nobody, so I’m hopeful that it will get killed. But conservatives will
                  probably have to cede some ground on the “inequitable distribution” policies. A
                  good first step would be to require states to collect and make public data on
                  the distribution of effective teachers—though without a teacher evaluation
                  mandate, it’s hard to understand how that would work. What’s most doable, then,
                  would be a new requirement for districts to report actual spending, school by
                  school, and include the real cost of teachers’ salaries and benefits in those
                  data.

                  • Spending.
                    It always comes down to money in the end. The House GOP bill explicitly limits
                    the growth in out-year spending on ESEA programs to the rate of inflation; the
                    Senate is silent on the issue. Furthermore, the House wants to scrap the law’s
                    longstanding “maintenance of effort” requirements, which penalize districts for
                    cutting their own expenditures. Expect the House to lose on the out-year
                    spending issue (which is another symbolic fight; Congressional appropriators
                    will make these decisions every year anyway). But dropping maintenance
                    of effort is a good idea,
                     especially
                    in the New Normal of tight budgets. (In the real world, after all the
                    compromising is done, MOE is more likely to be loosened than jettisoned
                    entirely.)

                    This truly is not rocket science; with a little presidential
                    leadership and goodwill from both parties, a deal could be hammered out
                    quickly. We haven’t had much of any of that in recent months, however—an issue
                    voters might raise come November.

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