Skunk at the ESEA Garden Party?

Last week the Senate HELP Committee approved a bill reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act by a vote of 22-0. As others have noted, Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray deserve plaudits for shepherding the bipartisan agreement through the committee with a politically diverse coalition that spans from Republican Rand Paul to Democrat Elizabeth Warren. To get them to agree on anything is notable, let alone a complex piece of legislation like this one.

And yet, for all the backslaps and justifiable compliments for the two senators leading the charge, I felt like the skunk at a garden party. That’s because, while the markup produced some improvements to the bill–including state audits of their testing burdens, computer-adaptive testing, an evidence-based competitive grant program, and a program allowing states to use their federal funding to create new teacher and principal preparation academies–the bill mostly retains the same stinky provisions governing Title I:

  • With a powerless peer review process and a meek Secretary of education that must prove a state wasn’t worthy of its federal education dollars, this bill would turn the federal education investment into an entitlement program for states.
  • The bill continues to set an arbitrary 90-day approval window for the Secretary to prove that a state’s plan isn’t sufficient. Nevermind that NCLB is now 3,024 days past the date Congress was supposed to reauthorize it, or that 97 days have now passed since Senator Alexander introduced his first draft back in January (and it’s still far from complete–no one has even mentioned how much this thing would cost, let alone having approval from the full Senate, the House, and the President.) As I wrote earlier this month, government just doesn’t work in 90-day increments.
  • The bill still doesn’t include student growth. While everyone in education talks about student growth, our policies continue to ignore it. Under the current bill, states would be required to measure student proficiency and graduation rates, and they could add other measures at their discretion, but they would not be required to do so. States historically don’t have a strong track record of picking up slack. When left to their own devices, states often fail to use their full discretion and tend to choose measures that are easier to implement rather than the ones that are the most accurate at measuring the school’s contributions to student growth.
  • Perhaps most depressingly, the bill goes backwards, not forwards. For all that you hear conservatives bellyache that “the federal government can make a state do things, but it can’t make them do things well,” there’s nothing in this bill that could be construed as the federal government asking states to take a single step forward. In fact, most states and districts will be able to do much less than they’re doing now. The current draft bill wouldn’t address funding inequities between districts, nor would it close the comparability loophole that allows disparities within districts. Asking states to improve the way they identify high- and low-performing schools could be an easy, bipartisan ask of states. But the bill is so anti- federal government that it refuses to ask anything new of states and local school districts.

In fact, while the bill would certainly be better for state departments of education, I’m hard-pressed to find where this bill would be better for students. During the markup senators were able to successfully insert competitive grant programs for advanced coursework, teacher compensation, charter schools, and innovation. But we already have those things! They’re called, respectively, the Advanced Placement Incentive Grants Program, the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF), the Charter Schools Program, and the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3). True, not all of these are permanent programs and instead rely on annual appropriations, but over the last few years each of them have consistently received appropriations to dole out millions of dollars to grantees.

Meanwhile, states with NCLB waivers are wrestling with how to improve their school accountability systems. The latest state plans are striking a balance between state flexibility and accountability for federal dollars. The bill making its way through the Senate would give States rubber-stamp approvals to do whatever they want with federal money, and the feds would be powerless to ask for any results. It would remove all protections ensuring that low-performing schools take action to improve. Replacing the status quo with something less than the status quo doesn’t seem like progress to me.