What State Policy Makers Can (and Should) Glean from the Largely Irrelevant ESEA Reauthorization Debate

These cold January days are shaping up to be heady times in federal education policy with Secretary Arne Duncan previewing the administration’s priorities for ESEA reauthorization in a speech this week and Congressional hearings set to begin. From conversation inside the beltway you’d never know that across the country, nearly every state legislature is gearing up to address many of the issues in focus in those national debates in real time. While the powers that be at the federal level will be debating annual versus grade-span testing, universal pre-k, and whether the federal government should increase its share of the total expenditure of public education by about one-half of one percent, state leaders will be acting on fundamental public education policies.

So how does this federal policy debate inform state-level work in the near term? It doesn’t really. Don’t get me wrong, federal education policy is important—clearly NCLB significantly affected how states, districts, and schools operate in the decade plus since its enactment. But under any realistic outcome scenario of the current reauthorization debate, federal requirements on states won’t increase much, if any. It’s much more likely that they’ll decrease. Given that, state policy makers are free to act in response to their own political contexts with low risk of winding up crosswise with a new federal mandate.

Consider the following statistics:

  • Number of state legislatures convening between the beginning and end of January: 45
  • Number of states in the middle of implementing the rigorous, new Common Core state standards: 44
  • Number of states in the middle of revisiting, reviewing, and otherwise “formally” arguing about those standards: 18
  • Number of states rolling out new assessment regimes over the next two years: 40
  • Number of states at some stage of litigation regarding school finance: 15.

To paraphrase Bull Durham, they’re dealing with a lot of {stuff}.  So, what about the national debate is instructive for state leaders now?

Annual testing is most likely here to stay. Secretary Duncan doubled down on it in his speech. And though the frequency of testing will be a central point of conflict between Congressional and Executive leadership, states won’t benefit from spending time and political capital pushing hard on this issue. Changing assessment regimes is expensive and time-consuming. Plus, there are compelling policy reasons to stick with the current annual system.

There’s not going to be a windfall of new federal money. Secretary Duncan’s $2.7 billion is almost certainly the high side in terms of possible new federal money for education. While it’s a big number by itself, in the context of total public education spending, not so much. He referenced about $1 billion for Title I, which leaves the rest for other priorities of the administration. So if this funding materializes at all, the bulk of it will most likely go to individual states with policy agendas that align with those priorities. If your state is ready to move toward universal pre-k and the like, your ears should perk up. Those with big money problems will need to do that work themselves (and they should).

States are going to stay in the driver’s seat with regard to standards and accountability—as they have been under waivers. And with great power, comes….you know. The bottom line on standards is that the context under which the Common Core standards were developed hasn’t changed. Students need to be ready for post-secondary training (really ready without remediation), and they increasingly need to compete with graduates all over the world. They are behind the 8-ball on both. Reducing the rigor of the standards perpetuates the myth that something less is good enough. So if state and local politics require that some states back away from the Common Core brand to get buy-in, then so be it. But don’t lower the standards. It sells students short. The policy lever to adjust here is on the accountability side with careful consideration about how to support transition and how best to measure and fairly judge the progress of students and schools.

With so much in public education in transition, these are certainly not the only important issues on which state policy makers will engage over the coming months. They are simply the ones most closely tied to the current federal debate. As a state legislative staff alumna, I wish my fellow staties the best of luck with all the heavy lifting.