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ESEA Reauthorization Grinds Forward in Congress

Colorado’s education scene is so interesting—and the federal education scene so ugly—that I rarely feel the need to drag our conversations beyond our state’s borders. Yet sometimes we have to force ourselves to look at what’s going on inside the Beltway, especially when the federal sausage-making process has the potential to touch Colorado in a big way. The ongoing ESEA reauthorization effort is just such a case.

For those distracted by summer weather and local education fights like the ones in Jefferson County and Thompson, Congress has been hard at work trying to finally reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which we currently know as No Child Left Behind. I was less than optimistic about the effort after HR 5 was denied a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year, but things appear to be moving along. Sort of.

Just last week, the House very narrowly passed (218-213) a rewrite of the law that goes further than the original HR 5. Education Week  provides a good summary of the bill’s contents:

  • Keep in place the testing schedule of the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the ESEA;

  • Eliminate the current accountability system, known as “adequate yearly progress”;

  • Maintain the requirement that states disaggregate achievement data to show how subgroup students are doing compared to the student population as a whole;

  • Require states to intervene in Title I schools that aren’t performing well, but not tell states how to do so or how many schools to try to fix at a time;

  • Require states to come up with their own challenging academic standards in language arts, math, and science;

  • Prohibit the U.S. Secretary of Education from requiring states to adopt the Common Core State Standards, or any other set of standards;

  • Bar the secretary from putting “additional burdens” on states through the regulatory process when it comes to standards;

  • Eliminate NCLB’s “highly qualified” teacher requirements and consolidate other teacher quality programs.

There were also a few bits and bobs added during the amendment process back in February:

  • An amendment was adopted that would allow school districts to use locally designed tests in lieu of state tests;

  • An amendment was adopted that would allow states to use federal funds to audit the number and quality of tests they use, and eliminate any deemed repetitive or of low-quality;

  • An amendment was adopted that would ensure that American Indian children do not attend school in buildings that are dilapidated or deteriorating;

  • An amendment was adopted that would allow funds to be used for programs and activities that are designed to enhance school safety.

My opinion of the bill is still forming, but a lot of those provisions look pretty good at first glance. Reducing the federal footprint in education, eliminating NCLB’s outdated “highly qualified” teacher language, and maintaining yearly testing requirements are definitely steps in the right direction. That said, I still have concerns about the feasibility of local districts developing their own valid, reliable, comparable tests in the real world. I also worry about the incentives created by the wording of the bill’s opt-out provision, which was added as an amendment. While I am very much in favor of parents being able to opt their children out of testing if they so choose without being bullied by the education establishment, it is important to ensure that tough populations of kids are not systematically “encouraged” not to test in order to boost school or district ratings.

Of course, my nascent opinion of the House ESEA rewrite may not mean much in the grand scheme of things. Arne Duncan has expressed concerns about the bill’s effect on accountability systems, and the White House has issued a veto threat if changes aren’t made. Meanwhile, the Senate is debating a much tamer version of a reauthorization bill, with Senators Alexander (R) and Murray (D) working furiously to craft a bipartisan measure that could survive both the House and President Obama’s desk. We’ll talk more about the Senate effort on Thursday.

For now, here’s the quick and dirty: Things are moving on ESEA reauthorization, and it’s looking like there may be a shot at getting a bill through. We are talking about Congress, however, and there are an awful lot of political considerations involved, so I wouldn’t bet the farm on the effort’s success. Still, this is the most progress we’ve seen on an NCLB rewrite in quite a while, and we should never underestimate the power of heightened public attention.

I don’t know how it will all shake out, but I do know that I’ll be watching closely. So should you.