White House ESEA ‘Blueprint’ Draws Fire

Published April 8, 2010

Education reformers are expressing disappointment in the Obama administration’s “blueprint” to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. A proposal to strip the law of provisions allowing parents to transfer their children from failing or unsafe schools is being cited as especially damaging.

The law currently requires schools that do not meet federally mandated adequate yearly progress goals to offer students the choice of attending higher-performing schools within the same district.  In addition, public schools that states classify as “persistently dangerous” are required to give students the option to attend a safe school. Both options would end under the White House blueprint.

Turnarounds Favored but Failing

The new ESEA proposal would provide more than $900 million in new federal funding to “turn around” schools that do not meet AYP benchmarks.

But a Brookings Institution scholar says the turnaround approach has had few successes and is backed by limited research.

“It is highly unlikely that a low-performing school becomes a high-performing school,” wrote Tom Loveless in a report published in March. “The chances are less than one out of 70.”

“The science of turnarounds is weak and devoid of practical, effective strategies for educators to employ,” Loveless concluded. “Examples of large scale, system-wide turnarounds are nonexistent.”

Andy Smarick, a former U.S. Education Department official and visiting scholar with the Thomas S. Fordham Institute, says the federal government is already investing billions of dollars in turnaround efforts through the School Improvement Fund and Race to the Top.

“It is essential that people realize that these schools were not ignored over these 20 years,” Smarick said. “How many more studies do we need before we finally accept that turnarounds are not the answer for our most persistently failing schools?”

Unions Critical, Congress Cautious

The mandated turnaround strategies have also drawn the ire of teachers unions.

“We are disappointed by this first effort by the administration to rectify the considerable problems in the current federal education law,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association.

Members of the House Education and Labor Committee have expressed cautious optimism while devising the reauthorization bill’s language.

“These improvements will require dramatic reforms to regain our role as a world leader in education. But if we are successful, I believe we can build a solid economic foundation for our future generations,” said Rep. George Miller, (D-CA), who is chairman of the committee.

Obama Calls for Higher Spending

The Obama administration says it will seek between $28 billion and $31 billion in new spending to fund its initiatives.

Most of the money would be distributed in the form of “competitive grants” to states, school districts, nonprofit partners, and other community-based organizations.

Cato Institute scholar Neal McCluskey says past results do not justify the new spending. “That’s $3 billion more that the utterly irresponsible spenders in Washington simply do not have, and that would do nothing to improve outcomes,” he said.

 “As long as such asymmetrical power distribution is the case—and it’s inherent to ‘democratic’ control of education—no proposal, no matter how initially tough, is likely to make any long-term improvements,” said McCluskey.

Evelyn Stacey ([email protected]) is a research associate in education studies at the Pacific Research Institute in California.

Internet Info:

U.S Department of Education: “A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.” http://www.heartland.org/schoolreform-news.org/Article/27437/A_Blueprint_for_Reform.html

Tom Loveless: “The 2009 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?”