Let’s Make a Deal: The ESEA Compromise Congress Should Make

Just like your favorite sitcom, Congressional Democrats and Republicans have been engaged in a will they/won’t they relationship for eight years over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Could the 114th Congress be the season where they finally get together? That’s what some ardent, right-leaning ESEA watchers (like Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and AEI’s Rick Hess) are hoping, given their general fandom of Senator Lamar Alexander’s current approach. But despite hopes for consensus, Alexander’s draft bill actually makes it harder to reconcile the largest issue on the table: the federal role in education.

Let me explain. New hope for an ESEA compromise isn’t just driven by ideology. On the policy surface, it also appears that the stage could be set for a deal. Everyone agrees on a more limited set of federal requirements than NCLB. For example, both political right and left think that states (not the feds) should play a starring role in creating school rating systems based on performance, graduation rates, and other measures; identifying low-performing schools; and designing and implementing interventions to improve them.

Further bolstering the mood? The annual testing plot-twist nobody everybody saw coming appears to be a mere diversion to create fresh conflict between the major players, instead of recycling storylines from past seasons (see: the 112th Congress “Should teacher evaluations be mandated?” and the 113th “Should Title I funding be portable?”). In predictable fashion, the annual testing drama seems likely to be resolved mid-season. There are just too many key political players (e.g. Kline, Murray, Boehner, Duncan), civil rights organizations, business groups, and state leaders defending annual testing for Alexander to open the grade-span testing floodgates.

Thus, old conflicts are set to re-emerge in the coming episodes of the reauthorization drama. And none looms larger than “What is the appropriate federal role?” It’s the “We were on a break!” conflict driving the entire ESEA reauthorization plot.

Yet when it comes to “ending the national school board,” Alexander doesn’t seem keen to negotiate. In fact, his position has grown even more entrenched over time, with new limitations on the feds in the current draft bill (see all fifty of them, here). And there has been no indication after two hearings and numerous interviews that he is willing to budge in his efforts to cripple the federal Department of Education that he once ran with a pretty heavy hand. Under his draft, states would have near-limitless flexibility, and ED little power to encourage reform, regulate key provisions, safeguard equity, or exercise oversight of state implementation. As my colleague Chad Aldeman explained, the federal-state relationship would boil down to “trust, but don’t verify.” In most cases, the Secretary couldn’t even ask for information about how well federal funds were spent, let alone take money (or flexibility) away for poor results.

This is a huge problem. With a figurehead cast in the Secretary’s role, we would never have known that over 80 percent of students are graduating high school on-time. That’s because we wouldn’t have had a uniform way for measuring it: the adjusted four-year cohort graduation rate (a 2008 regulation) came from the Secretary having some power to regulate the way states calculate graduation rates. We also wouldn’t have had pilots to help states develop growth measures and create fairer school accountability systems (a 2005 waiver initiative). We wouldn’t have standards or processes to determine if state assessments (or local ones trying to do the same job) are high-quality, valid, reliable, and aligned to standards (a 2002 regulation). And we wouldn’t have safeguards to ensure students with disabilities avoid being measured and tested against lower standards than their peers (2004 and 2013 regulations).

There is truth in Secretary Duncan’s call that too much state flexibility could lead to the “soft bigotry of ‘it’s optional.’” Under the policy consensus that’s forming, for example, some districts might implement rigorous turnaround strategies for low-performing schools, while others decide to phone it in. But there is also truth in the conservative adage that “the federal government can make states do things, but it cannot make them do those things well.” Just look at the track record of the interventions NCLB required in low-performing schools, like school choice, tutoring, corrective actions, and restructuring.

But even if the federal government can’t make states do things well, surely it can at least identify when things aren’t going well, and require states and districts to come up with a new plan to make things better. In other words, a federal role somewhere between NCLB’s endless prescriptions (or the dozens of school reporting requirements Senate Democrats wanted in their last ESEA proposal), and Alexander’s “trust, but don’t verify” approach with a Secretary relegated to paper-pushing and photo ops with school children. A federal role focused on oversight, outcomes, and state accountability, not on micromanaging schools or creating mandates. A compromise.

My colleagues and I at Bellwether have a few ideas about what this compromise could entail. But it will only matter if both sides in Congress are willing to make it.