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.