U.S. House of Representatives Passes Reauthorization of NCLB, Bill Moves to Senate

Just after 7:00 PM tonight, in a simple, five-minute, up or down vote, the U.S. House of Representatives agreed to the conference committee report on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose most recent previous version, signed into law in 2002, was called No Child Left Behind.

The House vote on what has been named the Every Student Succeeds Act was 359 in the affirmative and 64 opposed.

Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post summarizes the bipartisan conference committee version that has passed the House. The Senate will take up the same bill next week.

This blog covered negotiations of the House-Senate conference committee here, here, and here.

Congressional Compromise to Reauthorize Federal Education Law Rebukes Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan will leave at the end of December, turning over the leadership of the U.S. Department of Education to John King, an acting superintendent whose name will not even be submitted to Congress for confirmation as secretary.  King will likely be a caretaker through the end of the Obama administration.  The Obama Department of Education has accomplished its work.  So why is Congress taking the trouble to try to pass a reauthorization of the federal education law with a laser focus on diminishing the role of the department and its secretary?  There are many things the compromise Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) proposal will not do; refocusing on the law’s original 1965 purpose of driving equity in school opportunity, for example, isn’t being considered.

But reducing the power of the Secretary of Education is front and center.  Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post explains: “The deal would significantly reduce the U.S. Department of Education’s authority, prohibiting the secretary from influencing state academic standards and assessments, requiring teacher evaluations or using grant programs to influence state education policy.”  Think about that.  The law will prohibit the Secretary of Education from using departmental rules to press states to buy into college and career-ready standards (a requirement of Race to the Top and receiving a No Child Left Behind waiver), which means, in practical terms, prohibiting the Department from creating incentives to adopt the Common Core; from requiring states to demand that teachers be evaluated by their students’ test scores (a condition for applying for Race to the Top and receiving a No Child Left Behind Waiver); and from using grant programs to influence state policy (requiring states to meet particular federally prescribed conditions before the states can even apply for Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants).  In other words, Congress plans to ensure that the power over local school policy that Arne Duncan seized from the states will be nullified.  It is, of course, true that some conservative, states-rights-believing members of Congress have always wanted to get rid of the U.S. Department of Education because it has been involved with dismantling segregation, and other members of Congress, government employees all, advocate for cutting government itself for budgetary reasons.  But what is happening in Congress this week is much more specifically targeted toward Arne Duncan’s Department of Education.

Two reports released by the Department of Education last week help explain what has happened.  Not only have programs like the teacher evaluations mandated through the waivers been unworkable and inaccurate in their judgements on teachers (See the new statement from the American Education Research Association warning about use of Value-Added Model algorithms for evaluating teachers.) and not only have the Common Core Standards and the associated standardized tests created a firestorm of protests, but also, according to critiques of these new reports, core policies of the Obama Department of Education—Race to the Top, and School Improvement Grants—have cost a lot of money, and they haven’t significantly expanded opportunity for the students who have been left behind.

Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown of the Washington Post add up the cost over several years—$7 billion for School Improvement Grants and $4 billion for Race to the Top.  Layton and Brown sum up one of the problems with Race to the Top: “Any school accepting a grant had to agree to adopt one of four strategies: Replace the principal and at least 50 percent of the staff; close the school and enroll students in another, better-performing school; close the school and reopen it as a charter school; or transform the school through new instructional strategies and other techniques.  The vast majority chose the last option; it was the least disruptive.  The U.S. Department of Education did not track how the money was spent, other than to note which of the four strategies schools chose.”

The Department’s report on Race to the Top covers only first-year, 2010, competition winners, including 11 states and the District of Columbia. Although the report is glowing, critics have quickly pointed out what the contractor hired to evaluate the program, Synergy Enterprises, left out.  The report begins: “Race to the Top represented an unprecedented approach to competitive grant-making by giving states and districts the opportunity to build on their successes and innovate across their schools to improve outcomes and expand opportunities for millions of students… The goal of the program was ambitious: to bring together leaders from every level of school governance… to develop plans that would help prepare students for success in an information-and innovation-driven job market…. Race to the Top invited state leaders to put forward plans to improve not one or two isolated elements of their schools but to develop and implement comprehensive statewide plans to improve entire systems… Race to the Top empowered visionary leaders to put forward bold plans for change…. While the greatest change was expected to occur in states that were awarded funds, the competition encouraged broad-based, systemic, educational improvements even in states that did not win Race to the Top funding.  States across the country saw an extraordinary surge of legislative activity aimed at improving education.”  What this last statement means is that even to earn the right to submit a proposal for the competition, states had to change their laws to reflect the the Department’s conditions for application.  For example states were required to pass laws to remove caps on the launch of new charter schools in any one year.

The report on Race to the Top brags about consistent but modest increases in the high school graduation rates in Race to the Top-winning states and some improvement in college-going rates, though it is difficult to be sure such changes happened because of the state’s receipt of a Race to the Top grant.  It also alleges that Race to the Top grants changed the culture within state departments of education: “State leaders and superintendents forged an unprecedented and wide range of partnerships with principals, teachers, local officials, nonprofits and other stakeholders… State education agencies (SEAs)… moved beyond their traditional role of monitoring district compliance to driving comprehensive and systemic changes to improve teaching and learning across the state… States and districts are working with teachers and leaders to implement and refine new evaluation and support systems designed to, among other things, provide meaningful feedback to improve teaching and learning—and guide efforts to retain and reward effective teachers and principals.”

Cutting through the rhetoric, Andrew Ujifusa, writing for Education Week, is clear and concrete in his estimation of the report and what it leaves out: “(N)early all of the Race to the Top states struggled with crafting teacher evaluations that took into account student outcomes.  And many experienced serious political blowback to the (Common Core) standards, in some cases with major consequences for state leaders… The Education Department sunk $360 million into two (Common Core) testing consortia, Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.  Although PARCC and Smarter Balanced weren’t part of the Race to the Top grants discussed in the new report, they were funded through a separate Race to the Top grant, and are tightly linked to the work the states in question did with respect to standards… (I)t’s worth stressing that (teacher) evaluations were perhaps the biggest conflict many states have faced, both internally and with the Education Department. Many have argued that tying student test scores to teacher evaluations at the same time that states were shifting to new standards and assessments was misguided…  The report does acknowledge ‘significant challenges’ posed by these new evaluations systems, as well as the more general remark that some states were ‘not initially well positioned to make rapid changes.”

What about the other report the Department released last week about another competitive grant program, School Improvement Grants? School Improvement Grants were intended to improve school achievement in the lowest scoring 5 percent of the nation’s schools. The report explains that like Race to the Top, the School Improvement Grant program required school districts to “turnaround” schools by using one of the four prescribed methods:  turnaround— replace the principal and at least half of the staff;  closure—close the school and enroll students in another, better-performing school;  restart—close the school and reopen it as a charter school;  or transformation—transform the school through new instructional strategies and other techniques. Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown explain that the biggest problem with the new report on the School Improvement Grant program is that it tracks only about half of the schools that received School Improvement Grants: “Almost 1,400 schools received grants from 2010 to 2013, but the report does not include data from about half of those schools.  Federal officials blamed the gap on several factors, including the fact that some states switched to new tests during the study period, making it impossible to compare student test scores over time.  Meanwhile, the analysis does not include performance statistics from the two most recent school years.”  According to the new report, test scores in reading and math have increased modestly with the earliest schools in the program improving math scores most and those recently undergoing the prescribed reforms initially lagging in test scores.  Reading scores have increased modestly but less than math scores, and grown the most in the schools whose turnarounds were imposed several years ago.  The graduation rates in School Improvement Grant  schools have improved more rapidly than the average national rate of growth in graduation rates, but graduation rates in these schools remain very low compared to the national average.

Writing for Education Week, Alyson Klein reviews the data in the new report: “Only a little more than half of the schools that received a third round of the newly revamped SIG grants… improved, while the other half saw stagnant student achievement, or actually slid backward.  That’s not as strong a showing as the first two years of the Obama administration’s revamped SIG program, which saw gains on state math and reading tests among about two-thirds of the schools that got three-year turnaround grants…. Still, the latest results from SIG schools are consistent with those from other public schools nationally, over the same time period.  About 54 percent of SIG schools that got grants in the 2012-2013 school year saw gains in their first year of turnaround, compared to about 45 percent for all schools across the country…. And about 46 percent of SIG schools stayed in the same place, or slid backward, compared to about 56 percent nationally.”

Klein continues: “Experts are divided on whether SIG… has helped or not.  But nearly everyone who has studied the program points to big limitations in the department’s data.  States, districts, and schools need far more specific information from the feds about what worked for turnaround schools and what didn’t…. ”  She adds that the Education Department’s Institute for Education Sciences will release a more comprehensive report next year.

In the meantime, if Congress passes the compromise Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization its members have begun considering, the role of the U.S. Department of Education will be much diminished.

Congress Ought to Do Something Radical, Take ESEA Back to Its Original Purpose: Equity

In a news blast last week, the Education Law Center challenged Congress to “compel states to fund schools fairly” in any legislation it might pass to reauthorize the federal education law that we currently call No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Supposedly aides in the relevant House and Senate committees are working on a compromise between very different House and Senate versions passed earlier this year of a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  Whether any kind of compromise can be moved forward in the current Congress remains a question.

In pushing Congress to address equity in the reauthorization, the Education Law Center proposes that Congress add an element to the compromise that neither Senate nor House included in the very different bills passed by the two chambers—an element so unthinkable these days that it hasn’t even been part of the conversation.  This is, of course, ironic, as the 1965, Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)  (of which NCLB is merely the latest reauthorization) was originally designed as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  The purpose of its largest program, Title I, was to infuse federal funds into schools that serve either a large number or a high percentage of students living in poverty.

Writing of this year’s ESEA reauthorization debate, the Education Law Center points out: “Conspicuously absent from the debate is the critical need for federal policy to motivate the States to fairly fund their public schools. Federal funding accounts for only about 10% of preK-12 funding.  The states, through their finance systems, determine the lion’s share of school funding, how it’s distributed, and the mix of state and local revenue.  Only a handful of states provide sufficient levels of funding and distribute that funding fairly to address student need as documented in Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card.  Many states have been unable or unwilling to make their funding systems more equitable and adequate.  It is crucial that federal education policies pressure states to improve funding fairness.”

The Education Law Center references the report of the Equity and Excellence Commission chartered by Congress itself in 2013, a document that charges: “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities, meaning poor schools can’t compete for the best teaching and principal talent in a local labor market and can’t implement the high-end technology and rigorous academic and enrichment programs needed to enhance student performance. This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American Schooling today.  Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty… We are also an outlier in how we concentrate those children, isolating them in certain schools—often resource-starved schools—which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”

The version of the ESEA reauthorization that the House passed earlier this year contains a dangerous provision, Title I portability—a public school Title I voucher a poor child could carry to any public school to which she or he might move. Title I portability would actually increase school funding inequity by rendering Title I less effective to address what is a rapidly growing trend in many cities—the concentration of very poor children in particular neighborhoods and schools. Title I was designed to drive additional federal funds to schools where poverty is concentrated.  If Congress were to enact Title I portability, a poor student whose family moved to a wealthier school would instead carry the funding away from the school in the poorer neighborhood where many poor children remain concentrated. Many also worry that a public Title I portability voucher program could easily be the  top of a slippery slope toward Title I private school vouchers that would further drain funding from poor urban school districts.

The Education Law Center adds that while neither House nor Senate version of the ESEA reauthorization increases overall funding for Title I, both propose damaging changes in the distribution of an already far too small pot of money: “This year, the Senate passed a version of the ESEA that would allocate more Title I funds to southern and western states at the expense of northern and eastern states. The House passed a version that would allocate Title I funds away from large cities in favor of smaller school districts… The ESEA reauthorization bill recently passed by the Senate changes Title I by taking away a built-in reward to states that exhibit high “effort” in school funding. “Effort” measures state spending on education relative to state fiscal capacity. If this change to Title I is accepted by the conference committee, states would lose an important incentive to adequately fund their schools.”

The Education Law Center’s news blast concludes: “Under Title I, about $14.5 billion is provided annually to school districts, an amount that has remained flat for several years… What’s needed is a commitment from the President and leaders in Congress to take up the deep and longstanding inequities that inhibit educational progress in most states.”

In recent speeches Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, is also advocating for equity, though NEA’s request is even more humble: get funding fairness at least into the conversation.  Eskelsen Garcia and the NEA are asking Congress to include more reporting on disparities in the opportunity to learn by mandating a national “opportunity dashboard” that would expose inequity.  Patrick O’Donnell interviewed Eskelsen Garcia for the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “She said the worst failure of No Child Left Behind is that it expected all students to meet test score targets, without paying any attention to how poverty affects how much kids learn.  Expecting scores to rise without solving underlying socioeconomic issues was never realistic, she said. Garcia wants the federal government to report things like student access to Advanced Placement classes, kindergarten, nurses and arts or foreign language classes, along with test results.  The dashboard would also list attendance and graduation rates, data on teacher qualifications, class sizes and the availability of libraries and technology. ‘What we are asking for is a very powerful advocacy tool that will give us data. We will be able to use that information to call out what needs to be called out.'”

Congress certainly needs to increase the Title I allocation, keep the formula fair, and report data on access to opportunity as well as data on test scores. But during the Obama administration the U.S. Department of Education has also demonstrated that the federal government has an additional tool.  Arne Duncan has created huge grant competitions that have conditioned application for federal funds on states’ incorporating federal priorities into their own laws and rules.  As conditions for Race to the Top money, states were required to remove caps on the number of new charter schools that could be opened.  To get a waiver from the most onerous penalties of NCLB, states accepted a federal requirement that they tie teachers’ evaluations to their students’ test scores.  States have been receiving federal money on the condition that they agree to close or charterize so-called “failing” schools.  As part of the ESEA reauthorization, Congress could just as easily create incentives for states to close opportunity gaps by equalizing their state school funding formulas.

In her 2010 book, The Flat World and Education, Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond describes the kind of school funding reform Congress ought to be considering as its members reauthorize the federal education law: “It is exhausting even to recount the struggles for equitable funding in American schools, much less to be engaged in the struggles, year after year, or—more debilitating—to be a parent or student who is subject day-by-day, week-by-week to the aggressive neglect often fostered in dysfunctional, under-resourced schools.  One wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity….” (p.164)

Or go back to Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 classic, Savage Inequalities, as timely today as when it was published a quarter century ago: “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor. It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’  Americans, he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’  It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.” (p. 83)

Key Issues to Consider as Congress Looks at ESEA This Week

Today the Senate will begin debating a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), whose most recent version No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001.  Its five-year reauthorization is long, long overdue.  The House Rules Committee has also scheduled a meeting today to consider whether to resurrect the House version of the bill, which died after the Education and Labor Committee chose not to bring it to the House floor in March when sponsors realized they could not secure enough votes for passage.

Here is my view about what any new reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act should do:

  • address public school inequality by allocating federal resources for equity and pressing states to close opportunity gaps;
  • allocate Title I funds to support schools serving children in poverty through a fair formula, not a competition or any kind of portable voucher;
  • reduce reliance on standardized tests;
  • support and improve, rather than punishing, the public schools in America’s poorest communities;
  • address issues outside school that affect school achievement such as racial segregation, concentrated poverty and the need for pre-school that helps children before they fall behind;
  • reject market-based, technocratic policies that involve school choice and privatization; and instead
  • improve public education as the bedrock of our society and public schools as the anchors of communities.

How close can our current Congress come to these ideals? And why is ESEA so important?

ESEA’s Philosophy:   Beyond its specifics, this omnibus federal education law sets our society’s overall education policy and establishes the philosophy of education that underpins the law’s specific requirements.  The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was originally passed in 1965 as the centerpiece of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.  As he signed the original ESEA, Johnson declared, “Poverty has many roots, but the taproot is ignorance.”  Title I, a huge formula program that has delivered extra funding to schools and school districts that serve a large number or high concentration of children in poverty, was the centerpiece of the original ESEA.  Later Congress added funding streams to support the education of children with special needs—the Individuals with Disability Education Act, and funding to support the added expense of providing instruction in English for immigrant children.  The philosophy under the original ESEA was expanding opportunity, supporting equity, and compensating schools, especially when their states did not provide an adequate opportunity to learn for children whose needs are greatest.

How did No Child Left Behind change the federal approach to education?   Then in 2001, as the culmination of over a decade’s infatuation with test based accountability, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, a version of ESEA with a very different philosophy.  The idea was to test all children every year, compare the scores of all groups of children by race and economics, rank and rate schools according to how quickly they were raising test scores among every group of children, and impose sanctions on the schools and teachers who were not raising scores for all groups of children.  The law originally said it would rank any school as “failing” if it did not bring all children to a standard of proficiency by 2014, but as 2014 got closer, and everybody realized such a utopian goal was impossible, the U.S. Department of Education began offering the chance for states to apply for waivers (from the “failure” label) if they would impose high standards and rate teachers by students’ test scores.  No Child Left Behind abruptly shifted the focus of ESEA away from equalizing opportunity to a new philosophy of equalizing outcomes.  It shifted the demand away from closing opportunity gaps to closing test score achievement gaps, without acknowledging that achievement gaps derive in large part from opportunity gaps. The original ESEA set out to try to ameliorate the ravages of poverty—however inadequately it was funded for such an ambitious goal.  NCLB instead blamed schools and teachers, and its mechanism was sanctions without significant added funding.

How has the Obama administration changed federal education policy?   Then as the Obama administration added its own programs on top of NCLB, the problems got worse.  NCLB’s sanctions became widespread as more and more schools failed to bring all children to proficiency.  Sanctions such as school closure, turnaround—that involved firing the principal and half the teachers, and conversion of public schools to charters—began to be imposed across our poorest big city school districts.  The Obama Department of Education even took some of the money in the Title I formula and turned it into competitive programs in which states—those that would agree to the Department’s requirements that caps on charters be eliminated and teachers ranked and rated by students’ scores—competed for big federal grants.  There were “winner” states and also the losers, even though they also had public schools that serve poor children who lost the benefit of some of their Title I funding—the very opposite the old Title I formula that assisted all school districts serving children in poverty.

What is Congress considering now?   Neither the Senate bill nor the House bill being considered in Congress right now is ideal, though the Senate bill is far better than the House bill.  Both bills, unless they are amended, retain the requirement that states test all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school and report out the scores.  The Senate bill as it was passed out of committee in April would shift responsibility for improving low-scoring schools away from federally prescripted punishments and give states more latitude for setting policy.  For details about what is in the Senate bill, read Monty Neill’s piece (Monty leads the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.) that was printed in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column yesterday.

Title I Portability:   Although the Senate bill maintains the Title I formula, the far more conservative House bill includes a damaging proposal called “Title I portability.” This provision would undermine the original purpose of the federal role in education: to add compensatory funding in schools and school districts where family poverty is highly concentrated but where no state is doing enough to equalize opportunity.  Under the House bill poor children would receive federal Title I funds to support their education, but they could carry that funding to any public school they might attend.  If a poor family moved, for example, from a poor urban school district to an apartment in a wealthy suburban district, the student would bring along a flat, per-child, Title I amount.  The problem with Title I portability is that in districts where poverty is concentrated, the poverty of the mass of children challenges the capacity of schools to provide adequate supports and services.  Title I portability would undermine targeting built into the Title I formula that weights support according to the school’s concentration of poverty.  Here is how Washington Post reporter Lindsey Layton described the effect last February: “For example, Phoenix public schools have a poverty rate of 61.4 percent.  The school system receives $8.5 million in federal Title I funds.  Under the House committee plan, the school district would receive $3.8 million less, a nearly 45 percent drop in federal funds, according to the U.S. Department of Education.”  Many people worry that passage of public school Title I portability would eventually lead to Title I vouchers that children could carry to private schools.

Will the Senate bill, as proposed, be improved during floor debate?   It is assumed that there will be significant amendments from the floor in the Senate.  One is likely to be from Jon Tester (D-Montana) to substitute grade-span testing—once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school—for the annual standardized testing requirement in the bill that came out of Committee.  Although a large group of civil rights organizations has demanded the continuation of annual standardized testing because they consider it the only way to hold schools accountable, three civil rights leaders earlier this month—John Jackson, President of the Schott Foundation, Judith Browne Dianis co-director of Advancement Project, and Pedro Noguera, the New York University educational sociologist—published an important piece in The Hill to demand a reconsideration of the need for annual testing: “Moreover, of all the topics that could be addressed as No Child Left behind (NCLB) is considered for reauthorization, why defend a policy that has proven ineffective in advancing the educational interest of children of color and disadvantaged children generally?  Schools serving poor children and children of color remain under-funded and have been labeled ‘failing’ while little has been done at the local, state or federal level to effectively intervene and provide support.  In the face of clear evidence that children of color are more likely to be subjected to over-testing and a narrowing of curriculum in the name of test preparation, it is perplexing that D.C. based civil rights groups are promoting annual tests.”

One hopes there will be an effort in the Senate to move the philosophy of ESEA closer to its roots with a shift toward closing resource opportunity gaps.  Earlier this spring,  the Washington Post reported that the National Education Association has been pressing the Senate to amend the law to address the inequities between high-poverty public schools and those in more affluent communities by demanding that a new ESEA would require schools to, “publish an ‘opportunity dashboard’ that would disclose how much each school spends on teacher salaries, the number of experienced teachers and counselors they employ, access to Advanced Placement and honors courses and other indicators, so that disparity between schools is transparent.” NEA officials recently reported they are pressing Congress to include at least one measure of resource opportunity (along with the test score data required today) in the disaggregated data by which school districts and schools are evaluated. The goal: to shift the paradigm away from the test-score-based evaluation scheme embedded in No Child Left Behind to a new framework that exposes inequity across each state’s school districts. Problems are acute in states known to have regressive school funding formulas that fail to direct extra state dollars to help overcome disparities in local resources from school district to school district.

Can the House bill be improved?  Will it be voted on?  There remain serious questions about the House version of the reauthorization.  Will it come out of committee onto the floor?  Will Title I portability remain a key part of the House version?  Will the Club for Growth and Heritage Action continue to limit what the House will consider?  These two organizations’ lobbying efforts to make the bill far more conservative are said to have blocked its passage in March.

And then there is the question about whether Senate and House versions could be reconciled in conference committee, even if they were to pass in their respective chambers.

Debate Continues over ESEA and Federal Education Budget

Congress is considering an eight-years overdue reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), whose most recent version we call No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  A couple of weeks ago, debate on a House Republican version broke down just before a scheduled vote on the House floor.  Many have speculated that the cancelled House vote portends that Congress cannot find consensus on this complicated and politically polarizing piece of legislation.  After all, Congress has tried for a reauthorization twice before on the current NCLB version and failed both times.

But this year’s Congressional debate is not dead yet.  John Kline (MN-R), Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee says he will still bring his committee’s bill to the House floor for a vote—perhaps next week.  Senator Lamar Alexander (TN-R), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee , and Patty Murray (WA-D), the ranking Democrat, say they are working hard to move a bipartisan Senate version of the legislation forward for mark up in mid-April.  Although it is hard to imagine that the far-right House version, even if it were to pass, could be reconciled by a conference committee with any bipartisan Senate version, the legislation is still moving forward in the Senate, and advocates are still trying to influence what will be in it.

On Monday a broad based coalition of education and civil rights groups released a strong statement asking Congress to return the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to the original purpose for which it was passed in 1965, as a response to the Civil Rights Movement and as the centerpiece of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty: “Evidence continues to mount that the current approach embedded in ESEA, which strays from its original civil rights orientation of compensating for funding inequities, and which focuses on testing as the key means of accountability, is failing to produce the progress necessary, and is causing real harm… In this context, we urge Congress to make comprehensive supports for disadvantaged students the highest priority in a reauthorized ESEA.  While we strongly endorse the importance of setting high, meaningful standards for all students, we assert that reaching them requires, first, laying the right foundation, and supporting schools and states as their students strive to meet the standards.  We also caution that failing to lay that foundation or offer that support is more likely to widen current gaps than to narrow them.”

The statement’s sponsors—the School Superintendents Association; Annenberg Institute for School Reform; Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education; Center for Teaching Quality; First Focus Campaign for Children; National Superintendents Roundtable; National Opportunity to Learn Campaign; Horace Mann League of the USA; and Kevin Welner, of the National Education Policy Center—endorse five principles which they believe, embody “the original spirit and intent” of ESEA: address disparities in opportunity early with funding for high-quality pre-kindergarten and family supports; help states, districts, and schools with supports for nutrition, health, counseling, guidance, and emotional health supports; ensure enriched activities for students before and after school; align out of school supports for families and children with efforts of schools; and stop misusing assessments.

With the release of their statement on the reauthorization of ESEA, these organizations are also positioning themselves to speak to what is likely to be an ugly and protracted debate on the President’s budget proposal. After several years of flat funding, President Obama has requested an increase for education, with emphasis on key formula programs including Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Lauren Camera reports for Education Week that, “Overall, the president wants $70.7 billion in discretionary spending for the Education Department, an increase of $3.6 billion, or a 5.4 percent hike over fiscal 2015 levels.”  She continues by noting that “the main thing to remember is that the president asked for the sun, the moon, and the stars, most of which he isn’t likely to receive from this newly minted, Republican-controlled Congress.  So why did he even try?  Well, the increase for education—and other domestic programs—was the administration’s first volley with the Republican Congress on an issue that’s likely to dominate budget talks all year long: whether or not to adhere to the spending levels set by sequestration.”  A deal that had protected military programs and domestic programs like education from sequestration will expire in the fall, when a broad 8 percent cut will affect all programs.

Camera quotes Representative Tom Cole (OK-R), chair of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, which began last week to discuss President Obama’s budget request for the U.S. Department of Education:  “The grim reality is that sequester is indeed the law of the land.  It’s not a policy or a choice; it’s the law.  I’m not convinced we can get out of it by the time we mark up these bills.  However, I continue to hope for a budget deal… so that hopefully we can have a more realistic allocation when the time comes.”

I hope the education and civil rights organizations that released the important statement this week on the need for adequate funding in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization will engage actively with Congress as members debate the federal education budget. Last October the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reminded us that “since 2010, federal spending for Title I—the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools—is down 10 percent after adjusting for inflation, and federal spending on disabled education is down 8 percent.”  It is time for Congress to recognize the need for essential funds for these programs that are central to the mission of public schools.

Debate on NCLB Reauthorization Dies on House Floor Late Friday; No Vote Taken

The bill—passed out of committee in mid-February and considered on the floor of  the U.S. House of Representatives last Friday—to launch a long-overdue reauthorization of the federal education law was not a good bill.  I certainly did not support it.  But there was widespread belief that the bill, ushered through the committee process by John Kline (R-MN) would be affirmed by a House of Representatives dominated by Kline’s own Republican Party.  However, late on Friday afternoon after two days of debate, House leaders indefinitely postponed a vote, admitting they did not have the support needed to pass the version Kline and his committee had brought forward.

The bill’s purpose is to reauthorize the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  While ESEA is supposed to be reauthorized every five years, the current version, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed into law in 2002.

“In a political embarrassment for Republicans,” writes Kimberly Hefling for the Associated Press, “House GOP leaders on Friday abruptly cancelled a vote on a bill to update the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind education law after struggling to find support from conservatives.”

It would be reassuring if what people expected to be consensus had fallen apart over the parts of the bill that would undermine the original purpose of ESEA—the centerpiece of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, but strong support remained among House conservatives for several provisions that would undermine the federal role in education of promoting equity.  Consensus remained about several parts of the House version, for example, that would further undermine opportunity for poor children, especially those in urban school districts. No one questioned a provision in the proposed bill called “Title I Portability,” which would threaten the purpose of the Title I formula, which targets federal funding to school districts where family poverty is concentrated—the school districts that must meet the extraordinary needs of masses of children whose economic needs dominate their lives.  Strong support also remained for freezing  federal funding for education. The national advocacy organization, the Committee on Education Funding, warns that the House version, “would freeze funding in the aggregate for programs authorized in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act through the 2021-2022 school year. HR 5 freezes the aggregate ESEA authorization level for Fiscal Year 2016 and for each of the succeeding five years (that would be covered by a 2015, five-year reauthorization of NCLB) at the aggregate FY 2016 appropriated level of $23.30 billion.  Not only will this prevent needed investments for critical programs for the next six years, but it cuts funding below the FY 2012 pre-sequester level of $24.11 billion (a cut of 3.36 percent).”

Nobody expected to see civil rights protections or generous school funding in a bill coming from today’s extremely conservative House of Representatives, however.  A similar bill sponsored by John Kline when Congress tried in 2013 to reauthorize ESEA/NCLB passed the House but with not one vote in favor from a Democrat. And when this year’s bill was passed out of the House Education and Workforce Committee, it had no Democratic votes in favor

So what divided House Republicans and prevented Kline’s bill from moving forward for a vote?  Hefling describes, “opposition to the Obama administration’s encouragement of the Common Core state standards.”  She explains that the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth strongly urged members to oppose the bill.  Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post quotes Lindsey Burke, a lobbyist from the Heritage Foundation, promoting states’ rights and an erasure of the federal role in education: “This proposal spends nearly as much as No Child Left Behind, is nearly as long in page length and fails to give states an option to opt out of the law.  As it stands, it’s a huge missed opportunity to restore state and local control of education.” Maggie Severns of Politico Pro also notes the role of far-right lobbying: “An amendment pushed by Heritage Action that would allow states to opt out of the law’s requirements altogether but still receive federal funds was left on the cutting room floor when the bill went through the House Rules Committee.  Heritage and The Club for Growth both strongly opposed the bill.”  Many conservative House members were also apparently upset that private school Title I vouchers were not added to the bill.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal policy reporter, speculates that the disintegration of support for the House Republican bill portends that Congress will not be able to reauthorize ESEA until after the 2016 election: “It’s possible that Kline and other leaders will find the votes to pass the bill next week—but if they don’t, the bid to update the NCLB law this year could be in serious trouble… If efforts to rewrite the law falter, it would mean that states would have to continue to live under U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s stop-gap solution: A series of (increasingly unpopular) waivers from parts of NCLB law, which call for states to adopt certain education reform priorities (like high standards) in order to get flexibility from some of the law’s mandates…”

Passage of an ESEA reauthorization remained problematic even prior to the collapse of support from House conservatives on Friday.  Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of that chamber’s Health,Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is working with Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) to craft a bipartisan bill in the Senate. One wonders how House and Senate versions could have been reconciled. And prior to Friday, President Barack Obama had threatened to veto any bill that contains the provisions that were the centerpiece of the House version: Title I portability that undermines the targeting of federal funds for school districts serving children in concentrated poverty and the limitations that would freeze federal education funding for at least five years (until another reauthorization) at a level below what President Obama has asked for in a Fiscal Year 2016 federal budget proposal.

NCLB Reauthorization Debate Focuses on Role of Testing, Ignores Expanding Opportunity

Test-and-punish, the strategy of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind, has not been working. The goal of the law, drafted right after the attacks on the World Trade Center in September of 2001 and signed into law the following January, was to close academic achievement gaps by race and family income. Even though the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) version of the law, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), has been in operation for 13 years now and NCLB has utterly failed to close achievement gaps, Congress has never been able to agree on a reauthorization. Now our new Congress—both houses dominated by Republicans—has been talking about a reauthorization and has even been scheduling hearings.  In the past week advocacy groups have rushed to take sides on its central mandate: annual standardized testing for all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

However, because there is not another compelling educational vision to replace test-and-punish accountability, it looks as though a compromise reauthorization of ESEA may move forward, but that any new version will be unlikely to change the direction of federal policy in public education.

Last Sunday, in coordination with a speech planned by Education Secretary Arne Duncan to follow on Monday, a group of 19 civil rights and advocacy organizations issued a statement insisting that any new federal education law require annual standardized testing.  The statement demands that any ESEA reauthorization include, “Annual, statewide assessments for all students (in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school) that are aligned with, and measure each student’s progress toward meeting the state’s college and career-ready standards…” These organizations assert that annual test scores reported by demographic groups have shone a bright light on the persistent achievement gaps.  They advocate for the retention of annual testing as a way to continue to hold public schools accountable for addressing the needs of all children.

Then on Monday, in a major policy address, Education Secretary Arne Duncan also insisted on the retention of annual testing.  Duncan has not threatened a veto by President Barack Obama but he has pretty much made the retention of annual standardized testing non-negotiable, despite that in the past he has criticized “too many tests that take up too much time.”  Alyson Klein reports for Education Week that “Duncan…. wants any ESEA rewrite to continue teacher evaluations through student outcomes, the targeting of resources to the lowest-performing schools, and—most relevant to the current debate over updating the law—the law’s current regime of annual, statewide assessments.”

On Tuesday, Senator Lamar Alexander, the new Republican chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, released a discussion draft of a new ESEA. Senator Alexander advocates reducing the federal role in education and substituting what is called “grade span” testing for annual testing.  Under Alexander’s grade-span proposal, schools would continue to be held accountable through testing, but students would be tested only once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school.

Lindsey Layton reports in the Washington Post that Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate HELP Committee, endorses Duncan’s insistence on annual testing:  “Murray said Monday she wants to keep the annual testing mandate but wants to eliminate the myriad other tests states and local school districts administer.”

The National Education Association has reiterated its support for grade-span testing (once in elementary, once in middle school, once in high school) and its reasons for rejecting No Child Left Behind’s mandate for annual standardized testing.  NEA’s president, Lily Eskelsen García, released a statement on Monday that explains: “We are pleased the Administration is calling for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act… Our focus is on providing equal opportunity to every child so that they may be prepared for college and career… In order to do this, we must reduce the emphasis on standardized tests that have corrupted the quality of the education received by children, especially those in high poverty areas… We support grade span testing to free up time and resources for students, diminish ‘teaching to the test,’ expand extracurricular activities, and allow educators to focus on what is most important: instilling a love of learning in their students.”

In a surprise on Wednesday, the American Federation of Teachers, which has historically opposed annual testing, joined with the Center on American Progress, whose education priorities generally mirror the policies of the Obama/Duncan Department of Education, to propose a compromise: retain annual standardized testing for diagnostic purposes but use grade-span testing to hold schools accountable: “We propose that in order to inform instruction, to provide parents and communities information about whether students are working at grade level or are struggling, and to allow teachers to diagnose and help their students, the federal requirement for annual statewide testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school should be maintained… However, we also believe it is critical to relieve the unintended yet detrimental pressure of high-stakes tests by basing federal accountability on a robust system of multiple measures.  While these systems should include assessment results, states should only be required to include tests taken once per grade span… in their school accountability systems.”

The debate about the long-overdue reauthorization of ESEA seems to have been reduced to a conversation about annual versus grade-span standardized testing.  Some pretty basic things are missing from this conversation.  Our society tolerates an alarming child poverty rate well over 20 percent, among the highest among industrialized nations. On top of segregation by race and ethnicity, our society is experiencing rapid segregation by economics and isolation of the poor and the rich.  This growing segregation by economics is mirrored by a widening income inequality achievement gap that is even greater than the racial achievement gaps.  A drop in state budgetary allocations for public education means that 30 states are spending less on public education than in 2007 before the great recession.  Children who live in racially and economically marginalized communities where schools are poorly funded by state legislatures are the victims of enormous opportunity gaps.

These days politicians in both political parties pretend they are addressing the real problems posed by child poverty, widening inequality, growing segregation by income and race, and the collapse of school funding in budgets across the states with a regime of standardized tests and accompanying punishments for schools and school districts whose test scores do not rise quickly.  The punishments—prescribed by No Child Left Behind and also embedded the competitive programs such as Race to the Top initiated by the Obama administration— include blaming teachers and their unions, compulsively collecting data, closing so-called “failing” schools, and expanding charters and privatization.

Our most urgent educational priority as a society must instead be to invest in improving public schools in communities where poverty is concentrated.  The paucity of ideas being discussed in Congress and important advocacy groups about an alternative to No Child Left Behind’s “test-and-punish” strategy demonstrates that right now there is a lack of public will and a lack of political leadership to invest in addressing the opportunity gaps that cause achievement gaps.