Despite talk of reform and calls for accountability as the U.S. Congress works its way through the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), significant changes to date have been limited to Republican proposals for added state flexibility, under the Straight A’s plan, and enhanced parental choice with Title I portability.
But with their recent introduction of the “Public Education Reinvestment, Reinvention, and Responsibility Act,” Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut) and Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) have provided the U.S. Senate with an historic opportunity to restructure and revitalize ESEA by blending the best of the “3 R’s” plan with Straight A’s and Title I portability.
ESEA, soon up for consideration by the full Senate, was enacted in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Its primary intent was to narrow the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their more prosperous peers, but after expenditures over $125 billion during the past 35 years, poor students still lag behind by an average of 20 percentage points. During this same quarter-century, the scope of ESEA has broadened considerably and its focus has blurred.
The Clinton administration’s ESEA reauthorization plan urged more of the same. Despite calls for more accountability, the President and his allies have not been able to shake off the heavy hands of the education establishment, which is content with the status quo. So far, Congress has done only a little better, approving just two significant amendments by close votes in the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. But these amendments, Straight A’s and Title I portability, break important ground in offering states significant options beyond the existing program.
Under the Committee-approved Straight A’s plan, 15 states and an unlimited number of school districts would gain the freedom to spend federal dollars on the reforms of their choice, so long as they guarantee to boost the academic achievement of all their students, especially low-income youngsters. Under Title I portability, 10 states and 20 school districts in other states would have the option of strapping Title I dollars to the backs of low-income students and allowing them to carry that money to a better-performing public school, a private tutoring service, or an after-school program of their choice.
While significant, neither of these approaches would change the basic architecture of ESEA.
The Lieberman 3 R’s legislation would overhaul ESEA from its core. The plan would focus on six worthy goals: closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students, boosting teacher quality, helping limited English proficient students learn English, promoting public school choice, encouraging innovative strategies, and promoting accountability.
Unfortunately, while the Lieberman plan streamlines many programs, it leaves numerous strings in place and adds new requirements that would further burden states and school districts.
The Lieberman-Bayh bill can be improved by:
Eliminating strings. Since the spirit behind the Lieberman plan is to exchange flexibility for results, the legislation should fully empower states or districts to produce those results and eliminate requirements about where dollars must go and how they must be spent.
Target children, not schools. Instead of adding myriad requirements for states to target Aid to Disadvantaged Student funding to schools with a high percentage of low-income students, the legislation should instead direct the funding stream to children. Attaching Title I dollars to poor students in the early grades would allow parents the freedom to choose a school or other education provider for their child.
Eliminate class size mandate. The Lieberman bill allocates federal dollars to reduce class size by hiring more teachers, even though the evidence to date is extremely shaky as to whether this expensive reform will help solve the education problems in the inner cities. States should be given the option to use these resources for other reforms that they judge more urgent or promising.
Eliminate emphasis on certification. The Lieberman plan continues to expect that existing professional development programs will produce better-quality teachers, with an emphasis on professional development and National Board certification. However, there is no evidence so far that certified teachers or National Board certified teachers do better in the classroom. A better approach to boosting teacher quality would be to encourage states to give principals more freedom to hire applicants whom they deem qualified, and to measure success through student performance.
For example, educator Thaddeus Lott, whose low-income students in Houston’s Wesley Elementary School boast high reading scores, notes that “new teachers don’t come equipped to teach” upon graduation from education schools. A lot of school time is “focused on teaching teachers how to teach. They get so little field practice in college.”
The Lieberman-Bayh proposal has provided the Senate with an historic opportunity to modernize a 35-year-old hulk of a federal program and to enact real policy changes rather than empty symbolism: Giving states the flexibility to solve their own problems, letting them find innovative ways of serving the needs of disadvantaged children, and having states report back with the results. The Senate should strengthen Straight A’s, expand Title I portability, and apply a modified Lieberman-Bayh plan to restructure the remaining components of ESEA to focus on results.
Education is a top priority for American families. They deserve more than Congress and the administration have so far done for them this year.
Nina Shokraii Rees is senior education policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation and a contributing editor to School Reform News.