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.

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Congress Debates NCLB Reauthorization; Lucid Policy Memo Clarifies Concerns

Congress is in the midst of considering a long overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose most recent 2002 version is called No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  In the Senate, Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat, recently announced they would put aside Alexander’s Republican version of a bill and start over to create a bipartisan draft.

Last week in the House, the Education and the Workforce Committee, chaired by John Kline (R, Minn) marked up and passed a bill that, Kline says, will be debated on the House floor at the end of February.  This House version, HR 5, is similar to a partisan re-write passed a couple of years ago that died when Congress could not agree on a reauthorization.  The House bill, dubbed the Student Success Act, includes Title I portability and thereby undermines the original purpose of the federal role in education by reducing targeting of federal funds to schools in communities where family poverty is highly concentrated.

The Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of 115 national education associations and institutions has released a statement highly critical of federal funding freezes embedded in HR 5: “While CEF as a coalition is not taking a position on the policy issues in HR 5, we oppose the authorization levels because they would freeze funding in the aggregate for programs authorized in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) through the 2021-22 school year.  HR 5 freezes the aggregate ESEA authorization level for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 and for each of the succeeding five years 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)… Since the National Center for Education Statistics projects that public school enrollment will increase by more than 2.2 million students in this period and the Congressional Budget Office projects an aggregate increase in the CPI of 14.2 percent between 2015 and 2021, such a freeze would severely erode the purchasing power of these programs and significantly reduce services to students… These cuts have come at a time when enrollments have increased, more children are living in poverty and schools and students have endured deep state and local budget cuts.”

In the context of the Congressional debate about the possible reauthorization of NCLB, Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado and Bill Mathis, the managing director of the center, have released a lucid and nuanced evaluation of NCLB: “Today’s 21-year-olds were in third grade in 2002, when the No Child Left Behind act became law… The federal government entrusted their educations to an unproven but ambitious belief that if we test children and hold educators responsible for improving test scores, we would have almost everyone scoring as ‘proficient’ by 2014.  Thus, we would achieve ‘equality.’ This approach has not worked.” “The broad consensus among researchers is that this system is at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive.  The issues now being debated in Washington largely ignore these facts about the failure of test-based educational reform, and the proposals now on the table simply gild, rather than transform, a strategy with little or no promise.”

The policy memo was posted on Friday by Valerie Strauss at the website of the Washington Post.  An annotated version is posted at the NEPC website. I urge you to read it carefully.  Welner and Mathis examine a a set of complicated policy issues elegantly, simply and logically.  It is the best short evaluation I’ve seen of NCLB’s impact along with a consideration of several key issues being discussed in the Congressional debate about reauthorizing the federal education law.

Welner and Mathis acknowledge the argument from Civil Rights groups that NCLB and the disaggregated reporting of standardized test scores have shined a bright light on achievement gaps, but they add: “The hope was that this greater attention would be followed by greater resources and greater opportunities… It is important to note that achievement gaps were well known prior to NCLB.  The disaggregation of NAEP test results has provided clear documentation of achievement gaps for many decades.  What NCLB and related policies added was a set of punitive interventions, not a guiding knowledge of the gaps and not a set of strategies and resources to close the gaps.”

“If we as a nation are to continue asking our schools to somehow counteract the effects of poverty and other societal ills, we will need to provide children in resource-starved communities with extraordinarily enriching opportunities within those schools.  Looking to the adequacy studies across the nation, each economically deprived child should receive between 40 and 100 percent greater funding than the average student, while they actually receive about 19 percent greater funding.  In fact, by one measure, urban districts serving our most needy children have only 89 percent of the national average in revenues.  The original language of ESEA’s Title I program provided that each child living in poverty would receive an additional 40 percent of the state’s average spending.  Neither the federal government nor the states have ever appropriated sums of this magnitude.  The current discussion in Congress similarly ignores this promise and this need.  In fact, one proposal is to make Title I funds ‘portable,’ which would have the effect of moving even more funds away from schools with the greatest needs.”

What will happen in the future if Congress persists in reauthorizing the federal education law along the lines of the 2002 NCLB?  “The above-described pattern of ever-increasing social needs and educational needs, as well as fewer or stagnant resources, will inevitably lead to larger—not smaller—opportunity gaps and achievement gaps.  Testing will document this, but it will do nothing to change it.  Instead, the gaps will only close with sustained investment and improvement based on proven strategies that directly increase children’s opportunities to learn.”