Four Republican senators have proposed five bills to reauthorize No Child Left Behind amid widespread discontent from educators about the 2001 law’s heavy federal influence.
Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Richard Burr (R-NC), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Mark Kirk (R-IL) proposed the bills as a middle ground between the Obama administration’s blueprint and the House Republican leadership’s set of five bills.
The Senate bills would establish a federal goal of “college- and career-readiness,” provide federal money for teacher and principal merit pay, require states to annually identify their lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, streamline 59 federal education funding programs into two block grants for states, and encourage states to expand charter schools. They would end the annual federal measurement of “adequate yearly progress” and requirements for “failing” schools to make drastic changes such as converting to a charter, firing at least half of its staff, or closing.
The bills leave too much authority with the federal government, even as supporters offer the perception of significant change, said Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.
“If Republicans were paying any attention, they would be pushing simply to get the federal government out of the education business,” McCluskey said. “Based on decades of poor performance, we know that the federal mandates are not working. They need to get out of the classroom.”
Delayed Reauthorization Creates Morass
NCLB was due for reauthorization in 2007, a fact President Obama cited when announcing on Sept. 23 his administration’s plan to waive some of the law’s provisions if states adopt policy changes he prefers.
“I’ve urged Congress for a while now, let’s get a bipartisan effort, let’s fix this,” Obama said. “Congress hasn’t been able to do it. So I will.”
More than a dozen states have announced they will consider applying for a waiver, despite protests from Senators and members of Congress at the administration’s policy substitutions.
“When you bribe states with their own money—saying you will do what we demand or else—you’re effectively requiring states to implement new policy and bypass Congress,” said Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation. “That’s not acceptable.”
Altering Title I
The senators’ first bill, S. 1571, alters Title I programs for learning-disabled and special-needs students. The proposal:
• keeps NCLB’s annual reading and math testing for grades 3 through 8 and once in high school;
• requires states to continue reporting test results for racial minorities, English as a Second Language learners, and special-needs students;
• mandates that states adopt “college- and career-ready” education standards;
• adds two options to federally mandated interventions in states’ lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and releases states from federal interventions except in this worst 5 percent.
The other bills would allow charter operators to receive federal authorization, eliminate the requirement that teachers must be certified in their subject area, and require states to develop their own teacher and principal evaluation systems.
The college- and career-readiness standard is “incredibly vague,” McCluskey said, and could continue to allow the Secretary of Education broad administrative authority over states.
Focusing only on the bottom 5 percent of failing schools will leave millions of poor and minority students “trapped in schools with abysmal performance or wide achievement gaps,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a statement.
Flexibility with Accountability
In contrast to this set of bills, the A-PLUS Act (S. 827), sponsored by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and introduced in April, would allow states to opt out of NCLB completely and receive federal education dollars as a block grant.
States could use that money for any lawful education purpose—and would apply it to their most pressing needs, Burke said.
To allay concerns that states would lower standards and bypass accountability, especially for the most at-risk students, A-PLUS would “still require states to disaggregate student data and measure student achievement and improvement over a five-year period.” Burke said. “If states can prove they’re performing well, they will continue to be allowed freedom.”