Alexander's Assurance of Bipartisanship Does Not Guarantee a Bipartisan NCLB

Last night, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) released his highly anticipated draft proposal to reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The release shortly followed Secretary Arne Duncan’s speech outlining the Obama administration’s key reauthorization priorities along with a speech by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the Senate Education Committee’s top Democrat (which closely echoed Duncan’s).

What’s notable is that Alexander’s proposal is almost identical to a failed version he introduced back in 2013, which no Democrats supported (though there are some big proposed changes in Title III). Even so, before Murray’s speech, Alexander gave several assurances that he would pursue a bipartisan path in committee discussions. He made it clear that his proposal only differed from Duncan and Murray’s priorities in four or five areas—most dealing with balancing federal mandates to states against state flexibility.

So, setting aside the fact that this proposal previously failed on party lines, what might those areas be? And how reliable is Alexander’s assurance that he’s aiming for bipartisanship?

  1. Testing – Alexander offered two options for assessment. The first allows states flexibility in how to assess students by eliminating the annual testing requirement. States would need to provide an “assurance” of testing in math, reading, and science but could choose a combination of annual, grade-span, performance-based, or other tests. Alexander’s second option would basically keep annual testing in place. It seems clear that option one would make comparing student data extremely difficult and be a non-starter for Murray and her fellow Democrats. And though the second option keeps annual testing, states would only need to provide an “assurance” of such testing.
  2. Standards and accountability – Like with assessment, states would need to provide an “assurance” of challenging academic standards and could devise their own systems of accountability. And, as an affront to the Common Core, the Secretary would lack authority to exercise any direction over the standards states choose to design or adopt—mimicking the prohibition on a national curriculum. After choosing standards and a system of assessments, states would not be required to set performance targets for schools and intervene in low-performing ones. And while they would still need to disaggregate and compare student data by subgroups for transparency, states could choose their own accountability measures. Though Democrats could consent to leaving standards completely within states’ purview, leaving accountability entirely to the states will likely be a non-starter for them.
  3. Improving teaching – Alexander’s proposal does not require states to develop or implement teacher evaluation systems incorporating student outcomes. It also eliminates the Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT) provision, which requires teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, state certification or licensure, and subject matter expertise. Though eliminating HQT might not be a sticking point for Democrats—since it measures inputs rather than student outputs—it creates problems for accountability systems. Specifically, states would no longer need to report whether teachers were being equitably distributed between high- and low-poverty schools. But eliminating the requirement that teacher evaluation is based partly on student outputs will almost certainly be met with Democratic opposition.
  4. Programs and funding – With the exception of the Teacher Incentive Fund grant program, Alexander’s proposal would not authorize any of President Obama’s signature programs, including Race to the Top, i3, and Promise Neighborhoods. It would also eliminate the 21st Century Community Schools program and education technology state grants. Moreover, the draft bill collapses several other programs—such as teacher quality dollars—allowing states and districts to have more funding flexibility. And the bill includes a provision for children who are eligible to receive Title I funds to take those dollars to any public school they want. Notably, though unsurprisingly, Alexander’s proposal makes no mention of the investments in early childhood education that Duncan and Murray want included in an ESEA rewrite. What’s more, the increase in funding and resources called for by both Duncan and Murray didn’t seem to make their way into this draft either.

While Alexander has assured Congress and the public that he values bipartisanship, there’s as yet little evidence that he plans to deliver. That is, he’s introduced a conservative bill that essentially ignores all of both Murray and Duncan’s key priorities for reauthorization. In order to get to bipartisanship, Alexander will actually need to work with his Democratic colleagues, particularly Senator Murray, on the above issues. Though such collaboration is unlikely, as Bellwether’s Anne Hyslop pointed out, it’s certainly not impossible.

But it is hard to trust assurances: they aren’t as reliable as “requirements” or “mandates” or even “responsibilities.” Providing assurances of bipartisanship could lead to a bipartisan bill—or it could not. Meanwhile, NCLB is long overdue and in need of fixing, as states (like Murray’s) are labeled failing. In kind, asking for assurances from states with regards to systems of testing, standards, and accountability could lead to effective systems—or it could not. Meanwhile, there are student groups—like Dual Language Learners—who are lagging behind their peers and deserve a guarantee that their states will act in ways that serve their best interests. Assurances simply aren’t enough.

Finally, even if Senate Republicans and Democrats come together and produce a bipartisan bill, it remains to be seen whether it would pass the House, let alone to the President’s desk."

Author:

Kaylan Connally is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the PreK-12 team, where her work primarily addresses policies and practices that impact teaching quality and school leadership.

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