At a time when the nation is prosecuting its war on terrorism across four continents and chasing down deadly remnants of Iraqi armies, the National Education Association has chosen to battle against “federal requirements to make significant decisions about schools, teachers, or children based primarily on test scores.”
The attack plan comes from an NEA document titled “Advancing NEA’s Legislative Program,” distributed to members at the teacher union’s 2003 national convention in early July and now making its way around Capitol Hill.
Specifically, the NEA has targeted its formidable legislative lobbying operation towards changing the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The landmark education law received strong bipartisan support when it passed in 2001, but it has since become more controversial as states and school districts grapple with implementing its accountability requirements based on academic results. It is not surprising the NEA selected the high-profile law as a primary target in its battle against making decisions based on test scores.
What the NEA has proposed is a series of 47 “technical amendments” to NCLB. But according to one senior Congressional staffer, there is very little that is “technical” about the amendments: Nearly all involve substantive policy changes aimed at stripping away some of the law’s most basic provisions.
“It is a plan to preserve the achievement gap in our schools,” the aide said, pointing out most of the proposed changes would have their greatest effect on poor students in underperforming public schools, and especially on language minorities.
If implemented, the NEA-proposed changes would severely compromise the NCLB’s accountability measures and their consequences. In addition, NEA aims to strike the most meaningful parental choice provisions from the law entirely, including parental choice for supplemental services and even public school choice for parents of children enrolled in failing schools.
In keeping with its goal of reducing the law’s emphasis on testing, the NEA plan would substantially weaken NCLB’s school accountability in a variety of ways. Sanctions for failing schools would be “limited,” measures of progress would be made “flexible,” and the mathematical formulas used to average school test scores would be modified “to increase the stability of school-building results.”
Redefining Teacher Quality
The “technical” amendments also reprise another favorite teacher union policy angle by equating teacher quality with teacher certification obtained through traditional schools of education. Under the NEA proposals, all teachers would be required to hold such certifications, although there could be flexibility for more experienced teachers. The changes would fundamentally undermine alternative teacher certification paths and also require all charter schools to hire only teachers certified through traditional channels.
The NEA amendments would create an exception for bilingual and English-as-a-Second-Language teachers–a striking departure from the union’s standard policy. States would be required to adopt “flexible standards for current ESL and bilingual education teachers.” Apparently, the NEA’s own views on what makes a highly qualified teacher do not apply to those who teach English learners.
The NEA amendments also would essentially remove English learners from the law’s accountability provisions. For example, the NEA proposes permanently labeling English learners so their test scores remain disaggregated in that category even after they achieve proficiency in English, and also not counting the test scores of English learners until they have been in U.S. schools for three years.
While no specific legislative vehicle for the NEA-proposed reforms had been made public as this issue went to press, the amendments have been widely circulated to Congressional offices.
Tougher Financial Reporting Standards Considered
In a rare session during summer recess, a Senate Appropriations subcommittee held hearings on July 31 that included a review of proposed Department of Labor changes to the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959. Victoria Lipnic, assistant secretary of labor for employment standards, described in her testimony how the new regulations would raise the bar substantially on financial reporting for labor unions subject to federal reporting requirements. This would include the largest teacher unions.
The Department of Labor began posting union reports on its Web site last year, in an effort to make it easier for union members to access financial information about their unions. Meanwhile, the Department has completed an extended public comment period on its proposed revisions. The regulations, which have not been substantially updated since 1959, would improve financial disclosure for the largest and most financially sophisticated unions. This would include the NEA.
One change would require unions to itemize all expenditures above a range of $2,000-$5,000. The itemized information would be posted on the Department’s Web site for members and the public to access, officials there said.
While Congressional opposition may still intervene, the regulations are currently expected to go into effect this Fall.
Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].