Advocacy Update: Movement on ESEA Reauthorization; Balance Needed

By Kelly Pollitt Communicator June 2013, Volume 36, Issue 10

By Kelly Pollitt
June 2013, Volume 36, Issue 10

The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—also known as No Child Left Behind—is in full play on Capitol Hill, with the House and Senate moving four separates pieces of legislation to renew the law. Both parties in Congress have put forward bills as ideological markers on the appropriate role of the federal government in education policy. Lawmakers are struggling to find an agreeable balance in federal and state authority—the current law tips the balance too far in favor of the federal government with its overly prescriptive, one-size-fits-all systems. While 37 states are operating under the Obama administration’s “ESEA flexibility” waiver plan that provide some level of regulatory relief, 13 states continue to operate and put in place NCLB sanctions on schools.

House and SenateDemocrats vs. Republicans

Unlike previous successful reauthorization efforts on ESEA, the current process is severely bogged down in partisanship and a lack of political will to reach consensus on how far the federal government will go to set standards, accountability, and assessment systems. The Senate committee, led by Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA), finished the Senate version— or approach­—to renew the law last week (read NAESP’s comments here), and the House is now moving forward with consideration of Chairman John Kline’s (R-MN) bill in the committee. The House and Senate both have dueling versions of the legislation between Democrats and Republicans, despite agreement on several overarching areas of the law.

The Senate Democrats’ bill mirrors the Obama administration’s “ESEA waiver” package, and preserves the structure and activities that the 37 waiver states have underway, such as the adoption of college and career-ready standards and the establishment of teacher and principal evaluation systems. Before passing the bill, the committee debated (and passed down) an alternative version offered by the committee’s Ranking Member, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), which proposes to shift the bulk of authority on standards, accountability systems, and assessments to the states with little federal oversight. Republicans also made a concerted effort to consolidate all categorical programs into a single block grant.

Similarly, the House, Republican-led committee is considering a version of ESEA that would give states full discretion on standards, accountability systems, and assessments, as well as eliminate more than 70 categorical programs. In the House, the bill statutorily reduces funding for all Title I programs consistent with the current sequester reductions. The House bill also promotes portability, which allows choice for public school students. The Democratic minority in the House is expected to offer a substitute that would track broadly with the activities already underway in many of the “waiver” states, such as require states to adopt college and career ready standards, set up teacher and principal evaluation systems, and provide professional development for teachers and principals. The Republican bill is expected to pass through the committee along party lines, and the full House of Representatives will vote on the measure later this summer. The Senate has not announced a plan to debate and consider the measure at this time.

Finding the Right Balance in Policy

While Congress is mired in political bickering, there is no disagreement on the intent of ESEA and the government’s role to encourage and support states, districts, and schools in their responsibilities to provide a high quality education for every child. Historically, the law has outlined goals and provided the guardrails for programs and services, but has left decisions about which programs to provide in schools to local communities. There is also agreement that the federal role must support the innovation and transformation that is taking place at the state and local levels—an obligation to ensure that states and localities are held accountable and sufficiently invest in sound education practice to give educators and students what is needed to be successful.

The proposals that have been put forward demonstrate an agreement on these overall goals, but differ on tactics and the level of federal involvement to provide direct or indirect support for services in education. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Congress is not the specifics of the legislation, but the willingness to put aside political differences, acknowledge the agreement on several overarching principles of the law, and work together to complete a reauthorization that the nation’s schools are depending on. Without a bipartisan approach that is supported by president, ESEA reauthorization will not be accomplished again this session.

As the process moves forward, please visit the advocacy section of the NAESP website for additional updates.

Kelly Pollitt is Associate Executive Director for Advocacy, Policy, and Special Projects at NAESP

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