Both the House and Senate are currently considering proposals to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, the 2001 iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It is unlikely that either of these will actually become law; the Senate education committee’s comprehensive bill and the House education committee’s package of five bills have little in common and, in the House’s case, no bipartisan support, leaving few opportunities for compromise. It’s worth taking a close look at the proposals on the table, however, to get a feel for how each Congressional delegation is thinking about education policy. The bills take different paths in several areas, and below we highlight five: early learning, federal funding, school improvement, teacher and leader quality, and the future of Race to the Top and the Obama administration’s other education reform grant programs.
1. Early learning. Neither proposal includes early learning at the level of policy detail we’d like to see, but the Senate bill comes closer. The Senate proposal would, for example, expand the use of Title II (teacher and leader quality) dollars, allowing school districts to use that funding for joint professional development with elementary school teachers and early learning program staff, and to reduce class size in pre-K through third grade classrooms. The Senate bill would also include early learning as one of the priority areas for future Race to the Top competitions. The House bills do not include these provisions and make almost no mention at all of early learning.
2. Federal funding. The House proposal would provide states and school districts with significantly more flexibility in how they use federal education dollars. School districts would be able to redirect funds from Title I, Part A (support for disadvantaged students), the Education Jobs Fund, School Improvement Grants and English Language Acquisition grants to other programs. For example, districts could use federal money currently designated for low-income children to fund technological innovation or programs for rural students. The House proposal would also do away with the Maintenance of Effort provision that requires states and local school districts to maintain a certain level of funding to be eligible for federal funds under Title I. The elimination of this requirement could lead to more inequities in public education as low-income school districts cut costs in a difficult economic environment.
The Senate proposal does not make significant changes to requirements for funding or change how states and school districts can use federal dollars. The Senate bill would close the loophole in the current Title I Teacher Comparability provision, which requires school districts to provide equitable state and local resources (including teachers) to both low-income and higher-income schools. School districts are currently allowed to show comparability through student-to-staff ratios or teacher salary schedules, not expenditures like actual salaries, creating the possibility of a Title I school staffed with mostly new hires. The Senate bill would require school districts to show comparability through actual salaries. The House proposal, on the other hand, does nothing to fix the loophole.
3. Accountability and school improvement. Both proposals eliminate the Annual Yearly Progress requirement to raise all student test scores in reading and math to the “proficiency” level by 2014. Instead, they require states to develop their own statewide accountability systems that include reporting achievement information on subgroups of students. The Senate proposal would require states to identify “Achievement Gap Schools” and “Persistently Low-Achieving Schools.” Achievement Gap schools would be expected to improve within three years, otherwise the schools’ home districts would become ineligible for any “priority points” or special consideration for any grant program funding under ESEA. (Sometimes the selection of grantees for federal programs comes down to a mere point or even less, so being stripped of priority points could make all the difference for a school district.) Low-Achieving schools would be designated through state test scores in English and math, and would include the lowest-achieving 5 percent of public high schools and the lowest-achieving 5 percent of public elementary, middle and junior high schools. Once labeled, a school would have to make improvements using one of several turnaround strategies outlined in the bill.
The House proposal does not outline any specific turnaround strategies that should be used, and simply requires states to create a system for school improvement that is implemented by local school districts, including interventions in low-performing Title I schools. It would also eliminate the School Improvement Grant program, moving those funds to be distributed to states per the Title I formula and allowing states and school districts more flexibility in how they use those funds. As pointed out by our sister blog, Ed Money Watch, “these changes, in the name of local control, could make the nation's highest-need students more vulnerable than ever.”
4. Teacher and leader quality. There are several proposed changes to Title II, which focuses on teacher and principal quality. The House proposal would eliminate the controversial highly qualified teacher provision, which, under the current definition, requires teachers to be fully certified, hold at least a bachelor’s degree and demonstrate competence in the subject area they teach. The Senate proposal keeps the provision intact.
The House proposal would require states and school districts to develop teacher evaluation systems that include student achievement data as part of the evaluation, alongside other measures – but the House leaves it up to states and districts as to what those other measures should be. The Senate proposal would make funding available for states and school districts that choose to develop new teacher and principal evaluation systems, but would not mandate them. In Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) first draft of the bill, evaluation systems were a requirement. But the language was quickly amended in response to objections from Senate Republicans, making evaluation systems optional.
5. The Obama administration’s signature grant programs. The Senate education committee’s ESEA bill would write the administration’s signature grant programs – Promise Neighborhoods, Investing in Innovation (i3) and Race to the Top – into ESEA. The House education committee’s proposal does not even mention these programs.
As we’ve said before, these ESEA proposals are a long way from becoming law. This is due, in large part, to the discord in Congress over how the law should be reauthorized (one comprehensive bill or through a series of separate bills) and, more broadly, over what the federal government’s role should be in education, and whether states should have more or less flexibility in pursuing reform. In the meantime, with the reauthorization long overdue and states eager to get out from under the current law’s mandates, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s NCLB waiver plan is taking the place of a new law. How long will Congress let the waivers continue before enacting legislation? Will the House and Senate come together before the presidential election, or will the responsibility to reauthorize ESEA be kicked down the road to the 113th Congress?
For more on early learning and ESEA Reauthorization visit our special page.
UPDATED 1/26: Added reference to new analysis on Ed Money Watch blog.