There’s Something for Everyone in Neatly Wrapped Education Bill

Christmas could come early for educators and their advocates, with lawmakers hopeful an agreement to fix the No Child Left Behind law could clear Congress by mid-December.

The Grinch, however, could be hiding in the details of the bill text, which was released Monday.

Conference committee members from both parties expressed confidence that they’ve reached a compromise that balances conservatives’ calls for a limited federal role in education with Democrats’ concerns over accountability and transparency. However, groups that have been vocal during the yearlong process are reserving their final judgments until they digest the legislative text. Some are already skeptical.

The conservative Heritage Action, which was influential in tanking the House’s first attempt to pass a reauthorization measure earlier this year, has signaled it could oppose the final package for abandoning the House’s language for opting out of tests, not going far enough with program cuts and including Democrats’ pre-kindergarten program.

Meanwhile, education groups and advocates have expressed cautious optimism.

The American Association of School Administrators, the school superintendents association, told its members that it is “comfortable with supporting [the framework] moving forward and anticipate that we will be in a position to support the legislation, pending final review. (The devil is always in the detail).”

“This is not a perfect bill, but it gets far more right than it gets wrong,” the group said in a Nov. 19 memo on the conference framework document, “and our nation’s schools and students deserve a complete reauthorization and to be free from the limited, conditional nature of ESEA waivers.”

Education policy watchers anticipate there are enough compromises in the final agreement for all sides to declare victories, particularly with widespread agreement that the 2001 law (PL 107-110), which expired in 2007, is doing more harm than good.

“There is a very powerful force behind trying to get this done,” said Tamara Hiler, policy adviser for education at Third Way, a centrist policy think tank.

Teacher unions get to see the elimination of the federal accountability system, the so-called Adequate Yearly Progress; limitations on the amount of testing and the use of test results; and options for states to pilot new testing policies, Hiler said. Conservatives, too, get to tout a significantly reduced federal role, an end to federal mandates and much more control to states and local education agencies, she said.

“With those two forces combined, there really is this strange bedfellows initiative of everyone just trying to get this done for their own reasons,” she said.

Scrutiny for Accountability

The agreement’s accountability provisions — which  would require states to take action in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, high schools that graduate less than 67 percent of students, and schools in which any subgroup of students is consistently underperforming — are expected to draw the most scrutiny.

In addition to test scores, schools would be rated based on four measures of student achievement, including graduation rates and the performance of English language learners.

State accountability systems also could look at other achievement indicators, such as school safety and advanced coursework, but schools have to be able to separate the data by student demographic subgroups.

Requiring interventions in underperforming schools is considered a win for the White House and civil rights groups, and Democrats proved during floor debate on the individual bills (HR 5, S 1177) that they had the votes to stop a final measure if stronger protections were not included.

State and local school districts would have to create evidence-based plans for action at those schools. The Education Department would have to approve statewide accountability systems, and the Education secretary also would have the authority to tell states, within a range, how much weight they put on each of the indicators, said a person familiar with the negotiations.

The agreement does not include portability provisions from the House bill to allow Title I dollars to follow students if they transfer among public and charter schools, which some conservatives wanted. Instead, the compromise includes a pilot program from the Senate bill that would allow a limited number of districts to consolidate federal, state and local funding and divvy it up per pupil through a weighted system that favors low-income students and English language learners.

Another shared win for the parties is expected with program consolidation.

Roughly 50 education programs would be consolidated into one large block grant, called the Student Support and Academic Enrichment program. The formula-based grant would distribute dollars to fill resource and opportunity gaps based on need and population.

Joel Packer, a principal at the Raben Group consulting firm, which has been closely following the negotiations, said the set up of the program — a block grant, distributed by formula — ensures a set distribution of funds to states, while reducing paperwork and bureaucracy — a win for Republicans. While it consolidates several programs, states would still be required to spend minimum amounts of that funding in three general areas — for student health and safety, well-rounded education, and education technology — a win for Democrats, he said.

“They did a great job of tradeoffs,” he said. “This is really how the process is supposed to work and how laws are supposed to be made. Try to give as many people some of what they want.”

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