February 17, 2012
K-12 Footprint at Core of ESEA Hearing
Congressional lawmakers in charge of overseeing the reauthorization
of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act are deeply divided
on the right role for the federal government in K-12 education,
a split on display at Thursday's hearing on a pair of bills
before the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
The measures, introduced Feb. 9 by the committee's chairman,
U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., would significantly scale back
the federal role in overseeing K-12 policy, leaving nearly all
accountability decisions up to the states. They have yet to
garner Democrat support.
Schools would still test students in reading and math in grades
3-8 and once in high school, but the bills would get rid of
the adequate yearly progress provision at the center of the
law and allow states to craft their own accountability systems.
States would be able to come up with their own improvement strategies
and decide which schools to turn around. And states wouldn't
have to offer free tutoring or school choice for students in
schools that are struggling.
At a hearing on the bills Feb. 16, Tom Luna, Idaho's superintendent
of public instruction and the president of the Council of Chief
State School Officers, argued that states are moving forward
on sweeping education redesign without the federal government's
"States have demonstrated that, without being compelled
by the federal government, they've adopted higher academic standards
than they have in the past," Mr. Luna said, referring to
the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which all but four
states have adopted and are now trying to implement. "Without
any compulsion from the federal government, there's a renaissance
going on around the country in education reform."
But Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the
panel, said Mr. Kline's legislation would take away very important
federal protections, particularly for specific subgroups of
students, such as English-language learners and students in
special education. The No Child Left Behind Act, of which the
ESEA is the current incarnation, "turned on the lights"
when it came to how those students were performing relative
to their peers, he said.
"The federal government plays a critical role here,"
Rep. Miller said. "It can create guardrails to ensure equity.
It can ensure that, when states, districts, and schools have
to make hard decisions, those decisions are not made on the
backs of children."
Rep. Kline's measures aren't the only bills seeking to reauthorize
the ESEA. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
Committee also approved a bill last fall to renew the law, with
some Republican support.
But there are various approaches being pushed on how to overhaul
the NCLB law, widely seen as outdated and broken in key respects.
For example, the House bills would require states and districts
to evaluate teachers, using student performance as a significant
factor. That's something the Obama administration also wants
to see in the reauthorization.
Such language isn't in the Senate bill, however. And it was
Republicans such as U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee
and Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming who argued against it. They see
mandating teacher evaluation as the wrong role for the federal
government. The 3.2 million-member National Education Association
also is vehemently against the evaluation language.
But Felicia Kazmier, an art teacher from Otero Elementary School,
in Colorado's 10,000-student Harrison School District Two, which
is considered a national pioneer in using student achievement
to inform evaluation systems, testified in support of the idea
at Thursday's House hearing.
"As a good teacher, what do you have to fear" from
an evaluation system? she asked.
Another key question facing lawmakers: Should there be a role
for the federal government when it comes to school improvement?
Rep. Kline's legislation would zero out the federal School Improvement
Grant program, which offers states resources for turning around
their lowest-performing schools. The program, which requires
participating schools to choose one of four improvement models,
has been criticized for being too prescriptive.
Getting rid of some federal responsibility for fixing the lowest-achieving
schools is not the right way to go, argued one witness at the
States and districts are making some progress in turning around
the nation's lowest-performing schools, thanks in part to the
SIG program, although it has its flaws, said Robert Balfanz,
the co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the School
of Education at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. The
Kline bills "take the foot off the gas," when it comes
to school improvement, he said.
Rep. Kline said he would like the committee to consider the
legislation in the next couple of weeks, although the fate of
reauthorization in a highly polarized Congress during this presidential
election year remains murky.