With a Republican controlled Senate and a Republican controlled House, it appears likely that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), first enacted in 1965 and re-authorized as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001, may finally again be re-authorized. Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) and Representative John Kline of the House Education and the Workforce Committee have both released new versions of the bill for consideration in this Congress. But because these bills appear to be watering down many of the accountability provisions of NCLB and lowering expectations for students, civil rights groups and advocacy groups are very concerned about the effect of these bills on disadvantaged students or those with special needs.
Re-authorization of NCLB is overdue; although its various provisions remain in effect, the bill itself expired in 2007. The Obama administration has provided waivers to states to release them from the most onerous testing requirement provisions of the bill. To date, some 42 states have availed themselves of these waivers, leaving Representative Kline to declare, “We’re in the intolerable position of the secretary of education writing and implementing education policy for the country.”
Both the Republican Senate and House versions attempt to wrest control of education from the Federal government back to the states, where they feel it rightly belongs. From the get go, NCLB deferred to the states, saying “nothing contained in this Act shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution or school system.” Despite this language, the Republicans claim that NCLB and other federal mandates have turned the Department of Education into nothing more than a “national school board.”
Thus, the language in the Alexander proposal goes even further: “Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to permit the secretary to establish any criterion that specifies, defines, or prescribes the standards or measures that state or local educational agencies use to establish, implement, or improve state standards; assessments, state accountability systems; systems that measure student academic growth; measures of other academic indicators, teacher, principal, or other school leader evaluation systems; or indicators of teacher, principal, or other school leader effectiveness.” Laments democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of the proposed Senate bill: “The Education Department would become nothing more than a bank.” She says, “As I read the Republican draft proposal, all a state would have to do to get federal dollars is to submit a plan with a bunch of promises, with no proof that the promises were ever kept . . . and the Department of Education would lose any meaningful tools to make sure that the states actually followed through on this.”
Student advocacy groups believe that such accountability is absolutely essential. COPAA--the Council of Parents, Attorneys, and Advocates--states, “We are gravely concerned about Chairman Alexander’s ESEA discussion draft, due to its complete dismantling of accountability for the outcomes and improvement of all students, including students with disabilities. The bill lacks any mechanism for ensuring that students not making gains will be given any targeted intervention and support when they are failing meet state standards.” COPAA is one of more than 25 civil rights groups and education advocates who have released principles for re-authorization of ESEA entitled, “The Federal Role Must be Honored and Maintained.”
The groups are concerned about additional components of the proposed Senate bill, including elimination of the Federal Maintenance of Effort portion, which would provide districts with more flexibility in how they fund their programs, and the enabling of portability of Title I funds, which would allow funds allocated to poor performing schools to follow its students to other schools they choose to attend. Advocates believe that these provisions will prove damaging to disadvantaged students.
The Republican Senate and House draft bills place a different weight on the importance of testing, which is a crucial element of NCLB. The proposed House bill maintains the need for annual testing through grades 3 to 8 and once in high school, as does NCLB. But by removing the annual yearly progress component, some of the “angst” associated with annual testing will be reduced. The Senate bill offers two test options for states: either maintain the current annual testing schedule, or develop new ways to assess students, by either testing in grade spans, evaluating student portfolios, or administering competency-based tests. These choices have been characterized as a sort of “choose your own testing adventure option.”
Both Republicans and Democrats can agree that NCLB, which was written to provide transparency about the progress of at-risk students, needs serious re-tooling. However, we must be careful to not throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater. The Republican insistence on transferring educational oversight from the federal government to the states fails to recognize, as stated by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, that “history shows that, without some kind of accountability, states and districts do not always meet the needs of the most vulnerable students.” Republicans, as well as Democrats in Congress, talk about bi-partisanship cooperation. Please monitor this rapidly evolving legislative debate to ensure that the needs of these “most vulnerable” students are met in any reiteration of NCLB.