Alexander’s ESEA Draft: A Plan Isn’t a Good Plan

We already know just how little has changed in Senator Alexander’s new ESEA reauthorization proposal since his last stab at rewriting the federal law in 2013. But it’s worth elaborating on just how far Alexander is willing to go to “stop the national school board.” Never mind Senator Murray’s and Secretary Duncan’s insistence that federal policy must serve as a safeguard for educational equity and opportunity, and combat “the soft bigotry of ‘it’s optional.” Alexander’s draft does exactly the opposite. It doesn’t just provide more options for states by limiting the federal role. It allows for unlimited options by eviscerating the federal role.

That shift is most apparent in Alexander’s approach to Title I. Under his proposal, nearly $15 billion in Title I dollars would be distributed without any real mechanism to ensure state compliance. In all, I counted over a dozen ways in which federal oversight of state implementation would be hampered in Title I alone: The bill would create barriers for the Department to enact regulations if a negotiated rulemaking fails to reach consensus and would prohibit the Secretary from specifying, defining, or prescribing just about anything related to state standards, assessments, accountability and improvement systems, or educator evaluations. In short, the theory of action behind the nation’s largest federal K-12 education program would boil down to: submit a plan.

In general, I’m not a fan of plans. Just try reading the ones states submitted to receive an NCLB waiver–so many details, so little information on whether those detailed policies are actually improving student outcomes. But the Title I plans states would develop to comply with Alexander’s proposal could be far worse, lacking both detailed narrative and actual evidence to prove states meet key requirements.

That’s because, as my colleague Chad Aldeman pointed out (again), Alexander relies on assurances that states are holding up their end of the bargain, rather than demonstrations that they are (as NCLB requires). Assurances can be nothing more than promises—and the Secretary has few tools to enforce them in the new draft.

What does policymaking via assurance look like? Here’s a Cliff’s Notes version of a Title I state plan that could meet the requirements of Alexander’s proposal:

Dear Secretary,

Here in the 51st state, we have really great standards.  Our colleges pinky-promise that students who meet the standards won’t be placed in remediation.

Further, we have really great tests, even though a handful of districts are creating their own and our process for ensuring reliability or consistent scoring is half-baked. And we’re also only administering state tests in three grades, so that means there aren’t any statewide growth measures—just local ones, maybe, but we swear we’re keeping track of that.

Speaking of growth, we have an accountability system that’s super awesome. It’s based on a multiple measures dashboard (see attached 47-factor dashboard that helpfully breaks down information into an easily downloadable, 33-page, 10-font report for each school), that includes the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (since that’s the only detail the feds require), proficiency rates, and a bunch of other metrics.

And if we do find that some Title I schools are low-performing—and we’re not saying that they are—we promise that our districts are working hard to improve them. We don’t know if those efforts are based on science or research, but we’re sure you don’t mind.

Keep an eye out for our report cards!

Sincerely, 51st State

Alexander’s draft bill may appear to keep at least some key elements of federal policy intact: challenging standards, testing, school ratings, improvement strategies, and so forth. But thanks to the reliance on assurances, its Title I provisions are merely options masquerading as enforceable requirements.

It just goes to show, the only thing worse than a plan… is a really bad one.

2 thoughts on “Alexander’s ESEA Draft: A Plan Isn’t a Good Plan

  1. Bruce William Smith

    Your description makes Senator Alexander’s plan appear to be a really good one; or, put otherwise, the kind of plan that the Federal Republic of Germany, a government that attracted, instead of repelling, another sovereign country into joining it, would approve with respect to its states — a federal republic whose educational governance, ironically, was modelled on that of the United States, which has abandoned educational federalism in the two most recent administrations. Your use of the word “assurances” is, in Finland, another country with a better educational system than anything Washington, D.C. has cooked up, called “trust”; and in Switzerland, yet another country with an educational system superior to America’s, transfer payments move from wealthy cantons through the federal government to the poorer ones without the deep-seated distrust American ruling class accountability hawks exercise themselves over, but instead with a desire to help one’s neighbours without impugning their integrity.

  2. Alan Vanneman

    Since the Swiss federal government collects all the taxes for the country, “transfer” payments move from the federal government to all the cantons. Otherwise, they’d be broke. So the comparison with the U.S. is not exactly on all fours. If the U.S. government isn’t going to monitor how the states spend Title I money, it shouldn’t give it to them in the first place. Don’t conservatives believe in lower taxes?

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