Tag Archives: Lamar Alexander

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. Continue reading

The Burden of Proof in Federal Education Policy

Are states entitled to federal education money? Lamar Alexander, the Republican Chairman of the Senate HELP Committee, seems to think so. His draft bill to reauthorize the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act would entitle states with $14.9 billion a year federal dollars in exchange for…not much.

For the last 50 years, since the first federal K-12 education dollars began flowing to states, states had to ensure federal money was being spent on poor students and that they weren’t using federal investments as a replacement for state or local funding. Since the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, states have also had to measure and do something about student learning results.

Alexander would end this quid pro quo relationship. Instead of states having to comply with federal rules in order to get federal money, Alexander’s bill would require the U.S. Secretary of Education to prove states didn’t deserve federal money. Here’s the key provision:

The Secretary shall…deem a State plan as approved within 45 days of its submission unless the Secretary presents a body of substantial, high-quality education research that clearly demonstrates that the State’s plan does not meet the requirements of this section and is likely to be ineffective or is inappropriate for its intended purposes.

Not only would it have the U.S. Secretary of Education acting like a time-constrained prosecutor, but the bill is sprinkled with at least 16 50 other ways to limit federal oversight over federal money.

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What’s Behind Door #3? The Giant Local Testing Loophole in Alexander’s ESEA Proposal

There’s been no shortage of column inches devoted to testing and the “choose your own adventure” approach in Sen. Lamar Alexander’s draft to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And annual testing will likely dominate the discussion at the first Senate hearing on reauthorization today, even though many (including key witnesses, like Brookings’ Marty West) have already shown why backing away from annual testing is a horrible plan.

But annual testing is only half the story. That’s because Alexander’s bill doesn’t just offer two statewide testing options for policymakers to fight about. It also offers a separate testing option for districts on top of the state choices. And although education wonks are up-in-arms over the merits of door #1 vs. door #2 for states, most have, unfortunately, ignored the giant local testing loophole that is behind door #3.

Through it, districts could opt-out of statewide testing and use their own tests instead, regardless of whether Congress chooses door #1 or door #2. But the real kicker is that this loophole isn’t actually new at all. Alexander’s draft bill just makes it far easier for districts to take advantage of–and abuse–existing flexibility. 

Districts would only need state approval that their local assessments meet the same federal requirements with which state tests comply. And given the increasing number of districts pushing back on state testing, door #3 would be an irresistible option for many, even as it undermines the comparability of data between schools for evaluation and accountability; states’ abilities to provide technical assistance, support, and professional development to districts; and state investments in new assessment systems aligned to college- and career-ready standards.

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My Reaction to K-12 Issues in SOTU

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.