Sens. Alexander and Murray Propose Bipartisan ESEA Bill: Still Not Good Enough

On Tuesday, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN),  chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the committee’s ranking Democrat, released a 600 page, draft bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), whose most recent 2002 reauthorization we call No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Reauthoriation of the federal education law is supposed to happen every five years, but the current reauthorization is now eight years overdue.

Senators Alexander and Murray plan to bring their bill to a HELP committee markup for discussion and amendment (and eventually a committee vote) on April 14.  Even if the committee were to support the bill or something similar, and if the full Senate were to pass the bill as it came out of committee, it remains unlikely that a reauthorization will happen this year in Congress.  Reconciling the Senate version with the ultra-conservative proposal from the House Education and Workforce Committee, even if it were ever passed by a vote of the full House, remains unlikely.

Lyndsey Layton, in the Washington Post, explains the new Alexander-Murray bipartisan Senate version: “Under the bill, states would still have to test every student annually in math and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school and would still be required to take action to improve their worst performing schools.  But exactly what to do about struggling schools would be left to states to decide, a radical departure from No Child Left Behind, which sets federal penalties for low-performing states, and from the policies of the Obama administration, which required states to follow one of four models of school reform. The federal government would have no authority to set goals or timelines for states to improve those failing schools.  The Alexander-Murray bill would also let states decide whether to evaluate teachers, and how to do it.”

The proposed bill seems to rebuke what has been perceived as the over-reach of the Obama administration’s Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.  It  would prohibit the U.S. Department of Education from any involvement with establishing academic standards such as the Obama administration’s requirement that states adopt “college and career ready” standards as a qualification for receiving federal grants and waivers.  The bill includes neither Race to the Top nor School Improvement Grants that prescribed the rigid turnarounds—close the school—fire the principal and half the staff—turn the school into a charter—fire some staff including the principal and impose a carefully designed reform plan.  And it would remove the federal requirement that students’ scores on state standardized tests be used to evaluate teachers—a condition for a state’s qualifying for one of the NCLB waivers currently being provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

A positive in the Alexander-Murray proposed bill is the absence of a provision called “Title I portability,” that appeared in the version passed in the House Education and Workforce Committee.  The centerpiece of the original 1965 ESEA was the Title I formula, designed to target additional funds to schools serving a large number or high concentration of children living in poverty.  The idea was to provide extra money to such schools, which tend to be underfunded in addition to serving children with high needs.  The House proposal last month for Title I portability would allow a poor child to carry the funds to another public school (if the child moved or transferred schools), even to a richer neighborhood school or a richer school district where the overall needs in the school are less urgent.  And, of course, many people worry about public school Title I portability as the top of a slippery slope toward federal Title I vouchers for charters or private schools.

It seems that Alexander and Murray also omitted a dangerous federal funding freeze that appeared in the House version. The national advocacy organization, the Committee on Education Funding, warned that the House version froze funding in the aggregate for programs authorized in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act through the 2021-2022 school year. The House bill froze the ESEA authorization level for Fiscal Year 2016 and for each of the succeeding five years that would have been covered by a 2015, five-year reauthorization at the 2016 level of $23.30 billion.  The House version, according to the Committee on Education Funding, “cuts funding below the FY 2012 pre-sequester level of $24.11 billion (a cut of 3.36 percent).”

Information about the bill being circulated by Senators Alexander and Murray makes it clear that theirs is far better than the bill that came out of the House committee.  I worry, however, that the Senate bill lacks adequate commitment to equity and justice despite its strength in reducing the weight of federal punishments for struggling schools. Lauren Camera’s analysis for Education Week seems to indicate that the Title I formula would continue to distribute funds to districts serving children in poverty: “The bill would maintain a big formula grant that helps meet each district’s needs assessment.”  And  the summary of the bill released by the Senate HELP Committee says, “The bill includes federal grants to states and school districts to help improve low performing schools that are identified by the state accountability systems.”  However, I do not see sufficient evidence in the bill’s description that it would leverage enough federal funds to address the crisis in America’s big city school districts where concentrated family poverty and racial segregation have become overwhelming challenges for the schools NCLB has caused us to label as “failing.”  We will need to examine the details of the bill’s implications as more information becomes available.

It is a supposed fix for No Child Left Behind that still incorporates too much of NCLB’s obsession with test-based accountability. And Alexander and Murray’s Senate version can’t take away the punitive education provisions that Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and NCLB waivers have already forced state legislatures to embed as a condition for federal funding into state laws all across the country.

America’s education policy as defined by No Child Left Behind has demanded test-and-punish for such a long time that we seem unable even to conceptualize an education philosophy of support-and-improve.

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