For the first time since No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) stands a real chance to be reauthorized by Congress. It’s been at least seven years since it was supposed to be re-upped, and it’s overdue for some changes.
Most encouragingly, the Republican bills introduced to date seem to be designed to strike a balance between promoting parental, local, and state empowerment while also being pragmatic enough to stand a chance of becoming law. They’re still far from the finish line and could be made even stronger in the process. That said, they are a worthy effort and have the potential to improve the federal role in education policy dramatically.
Two chambers, two proposals
House education committee Chairman John Kline’s job is easier because his Student Success Act (SSA) passed out of the full House once before (in July 2013, on a party-line vote), and he can’t be blocked by a Democratic filibuster. He’s already marked up the SSA and plans to send it to the floor and pass it out of the House again in short order.
Senator Alexander, on the other hand, must cobble together a sixty-vote majority if he wants to send a bill to conference committee. He started the journey when he released his Every Student Ready for College or Career Act of 2015, an update of his reauthorization proposal from 2013, in early January. Since then, his HELP committee has held three hearings, and his staff just announced his intention to work on a bipartisan bill with Ranking Member Patty Murray in coming weeks. Both chairmen have indicated a desire to move these bills quickly (and Rep. Kline has acted particularly quickly).
How could they be improved?
From Fordham’s perspective, there is a lot to like in the bills. Passing nearly any bill would be beneficial at this point because it would remove the uncertainty and federal overreach of the waiver era. In addition, the bills’ major steps in the direction of federalism, while maintaining some of the key transparency provisions of No Child Left Behind, are welcomed and also could put to rest some of the lingering concerns over the power of the education secretary to push states into adopting standards and tests (something he or she should not have the power to do, no matter how good those standards and tests are).
Still, there are some things that might make these proposals even stronger:
1. Though these proposals give a nod to competency-based education, there are still potential issues related to the testing of high-achieving students. Currently they are required to take grade-level tests, which might not accurately assess their true achievement and may diminish incentives for schools to take their growth seriously.
One potential solution, presented by Senator Al Franken a few years back, would be to leave no doubt as to whether states are allowed to use computer-adaptive testing to find out exactly where students stand (they almost certainly can, but this would make doubly sure).
Another idea would be to allow a defined (small) percentage of the most gifted children to take an alternative assessment—be it the same test at a different grade level or a different test altogether. This might also represent somewhat of a compromise on the aforementioned issue of testing flexibility should Congress decide to keep annual testing.
2. There has been outcry of late over the administration’s use of quotas to discipline schools who are suspending “too many” children overall or “too many” children within individual subgroups. Certainly these are issues that need to be looked at, but not through the use of one-size-fits-all prescriptions from Washington. A prohibition on this practice, as well as the deletion of any recommendation that states use discipline rates in their school report cards (which can create perverse incentives for teachers to not suspend even very disruptive students), would be welcome.
3. Chairman Kline’s bill limits the use of Title II funds to reduce class sizes so that funds can be freed up for reforms that have a better track record of improving student outcomes. It’s an idea worthy of Chairman Alexander’s consideration.
4. It would be nice to see some additional flexibility within the law to account for, or even encourage, the use of course-based school choice programs, including course access and education savings accounts.
5. There is some disagreement on which of the dozens of small federal programs should be kept, eliminated, or rolled into the larger funding pools. Each deserves discussion but, all things being equal, committee leaders should focus on getting rid of ineffective programs and granting states maximum flexibility on the use of funds.