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.

Dangerous Bipartisan Conventional Wisdom Threatens Public Education

Public education policy is one area where consensus crosses political party lines—the consensus, that is, about imposing punitive “reforms” like school closures, expanding charterization, and scapegoating public school teachers if they cannot seem to raise their students test scores.  In these days when much of our politics is highly partisan, it may be difficult to grasp and accept that current theories attacking traditional public schools and supporting privatized alternatives are fully bipartisan. But harsh turnourounds, school closures and privatization are supported these days by prominent Democrats as well as the Republicans who are better known for such policies.

Bruce Reed, profiled recently in Inside Philanthropy, provides case in point.  Reed is a long and experienced Democratic operative who, in November 2013, left a job as chief of staff for Vice President Joe Biden to move into a highly influential school “deform” position by becoming president of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.  According to Education Week‘s Marketplace K-12 blog, Reed was chief domestic policy advisor for President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 2001.  Inside Philanthropy reports that Reed also served as CEO of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Reed was once a speech writer for Vice President Al Gore.

According to Inside Philanthropy‘s profile, “Ideologically, Reed looks like a perfect fit for Broad, whose political affiliations lean Democratic but who is an ardent foe of teachers unions, a traditionally reliable Democratic constituency.” “The Broad Education Foundation approaches school reform at the system level, funding projects that design new schools and education systems.  That includes staunch support of charter schools, but also big investments in bolstering the management skills of public education leaders.  The foundation favors reforms that are designed to reduce what Eli Broad sees as bureaucratic barriers that interfere with teaching and learning.  The foundation also supports value-added teacher appraisal models.”  The Broad Superintendents’ Academy certifies business leaders and military officers without experience in public schools to become school superintendents.

Inside Philanthropy reports that, “After the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, Broad has been the biggest spending education philanthropist of recent years.”

Here is a very brief history of the development of a bipartisan consensus supporting corporate “school reform”—by which today in Washington, political leaders in both major parties relentlessly pursue school reform dominated by a business-accountability strategy.  As early as 1989, President George H.W. Bush, responding to fears that the United States was becoming uncompetitive,  launched a movement based on standards, assessments, and accountability by convening an education summit of the nation’s governors, chaired by Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, to agree on national education goals. Through the 1990s states began to embrace test-based accountability. Then in 2001, when Congress—under President George W. Bush—reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, with a new name, “No Child Left Behind,” the federal government mandated test-and-punish.

After President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. Department of Education pursued the very same philosophy by making a portion of the huge federal stimulus, intended to shore up the economy after the 2008 economic crisis, available to states for school reform. These programs required states to compete for billions of dollars through Race to the Top, Innovation Grants, and School Improvement Grants, but strings were attached. To qualify, states had to agree to adopt additional punitive reforms prescribed by the U.S. Department of Education.  States earned points:

  • if their legislatures rewrote laws to permit rapid growth in the number of charter schools;
  • if they promised to implement specified models for school “turnaround”—plans that included firing the principal and half the staff in so-called “failing” schools without hearings or individual evaluations, closing low scoring schools and moving the students elsewhere, and turning over low-scoring schools to charter management organizations or education management companies; and
  •  if their legislatures changed laws to tie teacher evaluation and pay to students’ test scores.

The No Child Left Behind waivers that the U.S. Department of Education has been offering the states to help them escape NCLB’s unworkable Adequate Yearly Progress requirement, demand the same punitive reforms.  President Obama’s education policies continue to epitomize test-and-punish.  Increasingly school closures, rapid charterization, and evaluating teachers based on students’ test scores have become the bludgeon used to punish.  These are attacks on the heart of public education.

Test-based accountability has become the education policy of both political parties and all the recent Administrations—Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama.  Parents, teachers and others who understand the value of our society’s historical commitment to public education need to look for and support political leaders who courageously endorse expanding opportunity through public schooling.  New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio is one such leader.