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Waiver Watch: Let the Renewal Games Begin

August 30, 2013

As Ed Money Watch previously reported, the U.S. Department of Education has placed three states – Kansas, Oregon, and Washington – on “high risk” status for their ESEA waiver plans related to new teacher evaluation systems.  If they don’t get up to speed by the end of 2013-14, these states could face a series of increasing sanctions, from losing state administrative or programmatic Title I funding, to losing ESEA flexibility entirely. With the latter, the state would again be subject to all of the requirements and provisions of No Child Left Behind.

Now, the Department has released initial guidelines for all states seeking to renew their waivers this winter. Waivers granted from the first two application windows (November 2011 and February 2012) expire at the end of the current school year. Without the two-year extension, the consequences for these 35 states are the same as for those on high risk: NCLB, in full effect, in 2014-15I won’t go into the details of the renewal process (yet), but for more analysis take a look at these thorough recaps from Education Week’s Michele McNeil and Politico’s Caitlin Emma.

Instead, I’d like to focus on the challenge the U.S. Department of Education faces in ensuring state compliance with flexibility. The Department has a few tools at its disposal to cajole states into cooperation, but these kinds of punishments are rare, if not unprecedented. Few states have lost Title I funding, administrative or programmatic, under NCLB. And several states have been placed on high risk for their Race to the Top plans, but the Department has yet to follow through on the warning and revoke a portion of states’ funding.

Further, is returning to NCLB even a viable option? After two years of waivers, it would be a nightmare to revert back to NCLB-style accountability. For instance, would a state’s AMOs be applied retroactively to determine which schools were in need of improvement and which sanctions to apply (e.g. corrective action, restructuring)? Or, would every school in the state start with a clean slate and need to miss AYP for two years before sanctions kick in?

So on the one hand, the Department’s recent actions demonstrate that they will, at least symbolically, hold states accountable for the promises they made in their waivers. On the other, as DFER’s Dom Giandomenico notes in this must-read post, it shows just how anemic the Department’s monitoring and enforcement plans are. There will be two official monitoring cycles completed by year’s end, but they don’t cover every component of states’ flexibility plans. And while the Department is gathering data to analyze how states selected schools for improvement under flexibility (and will ask states to respond in their renewals), the data may not be made public, at least initially. The renewals will not face a peer review either.

In short, it’s far from clear how the Department will evaluate the quality of state waiver implementation in the renewal process, or if they’ll have all the information they need to make an informed judgment. But would better information, or a more thorough review procedure, even make a difference?

Let’s play a little game. 

Assume that the Department wants states to comply with the flexibility policy and to gain this compliance through partnerships, not punishments. The latter is particularly important to the Department, since punishing waiver states for non-compliance (by revoking flexibility or rescinding Title I funds) could further hinder effective implementation of the reforms the Department would like to see. In other words, any scenario where the Department must force states to re-comply with NCLB is worse than any scenario where waiver implementation is just so-so.

Now, let’s assume that states with flexibility prefer to have complete control over standards, assessment, and accountability within their states. But their preference for waivers is even stronger. They don't want to revert back to NCLB and comply with its 100% proficiency target for all students and 20% Title I set-aside for school choice and tutoring. For states, any situation where they get to keep their waivers is better than one where they lose flexibility. But the best situation is one where they have as much discretion as possible within the waiver policy. 

Here’s how the game plays out:

Regardless of the monitoring process or the rigor of the renewal guidelines, the only feasible outcome of the game is for states to do what they want, more or less, and for the federal government to work with them and hope states make good choices. In any other scenario, someone could be better off.

What did we learn?

1. U.S. Department of Education: Don't be timid when it comes to asking states to justify the policies in their waiver requests. States will tolerate the paperwork, data analysis, and conference calls if it means keeping flexibility. Yes, states may eventually struggle to implement, or even undermine, the Department's preferred policies, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to get states to do the right thing.

2. States: Behave responsibly. If states go too far and blatantly ignore the federal guidance, the Department may lose their preference for waivers at all costs – and there could be serious consequences down the line. It may not affect the waiver renewal process, but if states misuse the flexibility and unravel the progress made under NCLB, policymakers will take notice… and the next iteration of waivers (or a reauthorized ESEA) may not be as friendly toward local control.

3. Education researchers and advocates: Pay close attention to the game. States have a lot of discretion within the waiver policy, and there will be significant variation between them in terms of quality and outcomes – especially without strong federal enforcement. Recent reports – like this one from the Campaign for High School Equity – are a good start, but much more analysis is needed to ensure the lessons to be learned from ESEA flexibility are not lost.

Stay tuned to Ed Money Watch for continuing coverage of ESEA flexibility and the upcoming waiver renewals.

Storify: House 'No Child Left Behind' Debate

July 22, 2013

This post also appeared on our sister blog, Early Ed Watch.

On July 18 and 19, members of the U.S. House of Representatives took to the floor for a heated debate on a proposed reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Rep. John Kline's (R-MN) bill, the Student Success Act, passed 221-207, but the Senate is not expected to take up the measure. We put together this Storify as a quick catch-up on the House debate.

Storify: House 'No Child Left Behind' Debate

July 22, 2013
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This post also appeared on our sister blog, Ed Money Watch.

On July 18 and 19, members of the U.S. House of Representatives took to the floor for a heated debate on a proposed reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Rep. John Kline's (R-MN) bill, the Student Success Act, passed 221-207, but the Senate is not expected to take up the measure. We put together this Storify as a quick catch-up on the House debate.

The Federal Role in Education: Mend it, Don’t End It

July 22, 2013
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A few weeks ago I asked, “if Congress agrees the era of big government is over, why can’t we get an ESEA deal?” Both the Senate Democrats’ and House Republicans’ proposals to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) scale back the federal role in school accountability and improvement and allow for more state autonomy in determining how school performance is evaluated – and what should be done about it when schools don’t measure up. And Friday, for the first time ever, Congress voted on an NCLB reauthorization proposal.

The Student Success Act, sponsored by House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN), passed on a partisan vote of 221-207. But its ultimate chances are slim: a Senate vote is unlikely, and the White House already issued a veto threat. It seems politics (as it often does) stands in the way of Republicans and Democrats in Congress striking a deal. I wrote:

“Unfortunately, with midterm elections fast approaching, lawmakers appear more concerned with scoring political points and toeing the party line than with the give and take of writing complicated policy. And waivers enable the administration to enact its preferred policies, at least temporarily, while simultaneously blaming Congress for inaction. In short, gridlock is a win-win.”

All of that is true. But I didn’t acknowledge that there are, in fact, fundamental disagreements between the parties when it comes to where and how much the federal government should step back. For many Republicans, the answers are everywhere, and as much as possible. Take Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN): “No Washington bureaucrat cares more about a child than a parent does. And no one in Washington knows what is better for an Indiana school than Indiana families do. That is why the Student Success Act puts an end to the administration’s National School Board by putting state and local school districts back in charge of their own schools.” 

In other words, for Republicans the federal role is to distribute money, ask states to report a few data points, and promote school choice. And accountability and transparency are interchangeable terms, despite the fact that research – and past experience – demonstrates that’s not the case. When left to their own devices, states consistently take the easy way out (see here, and here, and here). And real accountability – transparent reporting plus interventions and supports for schools with lackluster results – is more effective than transparency alone.

Public reporting and transparency are well and good, but they are no substitute for meaningful accountability. That’s like saying disclosure of political donations and gifts is the same thing as conflict of interest laws making these activities illegal (just ask Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to explain the difference). A financial disclosure form isn’t enough to prevent ethical violations, just as school report cards can only identify, not solve, the problems in low-performing schools.

Once the data tell us just how bad (or great) our schools are, doesn’t the federal government have an interest in ensuring state and local officials do something with the results? In the words of Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), maybe it’s time to mend accountability, not end it.

Even the staunchest Democrats, like Rep. George Miller (D-CA), readily admit that “the federal government will never actually improve a school and nor should it try.” But without micromanaging every aspect of accountability and improvement, the federal government can ensure states set consistent, high standards for academic content and achievement. There should be common – or at least, comparable – measures for things like graduation rates, academic proficiency, and adequate student growth. And poor results, particularly for low-income kids, English language learners, and students with disabilities, cannot be acceptable. As Miller would say, “we must continue to support the simple idea that low-performing schools should be identified and required to improve.” The federal government can assist in school improvement efforts without directing them from Washington, working in partnership with states and districts to support their capacity to turnaround low-performing schools.

Indeed, some of the solutions may even require a more ambitious federal role, not a diminished one.  Instead of ceding more and more ground to states, the federal government could double its investments in assessments, data systems, and education research; overhaul teacher training and development; and redress significant disparities in resources between states and school districts. A recent New York Times editorial on testing noted that other countries with strong educational outcomes didn’t achieve these results because of local control. In fact, it’s the opposite. They “typically have gateway exams that determine, for example, if high school students have met their standards. These countries typically have strong, national curriculums. Perhaps most important, they set a high bar for entry into the teaching profession and make sure that the institutions that train teachers do it exceedingly well.”

That’s not to say these are the right policies for our education system. But maybe policymakers shouldn’t give up on the federal government so easily. States can – and have, in recent years – led the way on many education reforms. But getting a quality education shouldn’t depend on which state a student lives in. And with forty ESEA waivers and counting, there is probably more variation in quality between states than at any point since NCLB became law. This incoherence will not clear without stronger policymaking at the national level.

The Student Success Act won’t get us there. But since it also won’t get past the Senate or President Obama, the good news is that there is be plenty of time to write an education law that expects more, not less, from our education system.

Student Success Act Superlatives: the Best (and Worst) Additions to the House NCLB Overhaul

July 17, 2013

Following the world’s speediest markup, the House of Representatives could begin floor debate on the Student Success Act, the House Republican proposal to rewrite No Child Left Behind (NCLB), tomorrow. That would mark the first time (ever!) that an NCLB reauthorization bill has reached the floor in either chamber of Congress. However, the chances of the House proposal making it out of the Senate and to the President’s desk are non-existent. No Democrats supported the bill in committee, adamantly opposing its changes to accountability, school improvement, and funding requirements. And while every Republican on the committee supported the legislation, it may not be conservative enough for many members of the House Republican caucus – who would like to add Title I vouchers to the bill, eliminate the teacher evaluation provisions, and further diminish the role of the federal government.

Alyson Klein over at PoliticsK-12 has a super-detailed rundown of many of the 74 amendments offered to the legislation. It’s well worth a read. While many of these amendments are likely to be ruled out of order by the House Rules Committee this afternoon, they are still an interesting – and sometimes amusing – read. Here are my picks among them for Student Success Act Superlatives.

Most obvious pet project: Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) would like to add a grant program to support female students in higher education taking STEM courses serving as mentors to high school girls enrolled in STEM dual enrollment programs.Science, it’s a girl thing!

Most thrifty: This one’s a tie between Paul Broun (R-GA) and John Culberson (R-TX). Because the Student Success Act would consolidate or eliminate over 70 programs at the Department of Education, Broun would require the Secretary of Education not only to report how many Department employees are terminated, but also their average salary (in addition to the salaries of remaining employees). Further, Broun wants an additional 5% reduction in Department staff after the program consolidation. Ouch.

Culberson’s amendment uses a different tactic to rein in spending. While limiting the Secretary from placing conditions on states to receive federal money, Culberson would also clarify that states could reject federal grants. The rejected funds would then go toward paying down the national debt. Given state reliance on federal education money, I doubt this is the most efficient strategy to tackle the debt problem.

Least changed since 2001: Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Mark Takano (D-CA) have a rare, bipartisan amendment to change the requirements for student assessment… to those that were in place before NCLB in 2001. This would mean students would be tested by grade spans in reading and math (grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12). While high school students are only tested once under current law, the amendment could eliminate annual testing in grades 3-8. If successful, say goodbye to loads of student performance data the public has come to rely on and any hope of measuring individual student growth.

Most popular: Maintenance of effort definitely has the Democrats’ votes for prom queen. Four amendments to restore the funding requirement (or delay its elimination) were offered, more than any other single issue.

Most likely to succeed? Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) wants to add Title I funding portability, allocating funds not on the basis of a district’s concentration of poor students, but instead directly following eligible children to the schools where they enroll. Students could attend their assigned public school, a charter school, or an out-of-district school if the state opts-in to the program. In an appearance at a Washington, D.C. charter school, Cantor said he believes his amendment (and the overall bill) could gain bipartisan support. But given reaction to the amendment and the fact that Senate Democrats voted down a similar amendment to their proposal, Cantor’s optimism is more comical than anything.

Class Clown: Speaking of amusing, Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) would like to clarify that the “sense of the Congress” is that Education Secretary Arne Duncan – through Race to the Top and NCLB waivers – “coerced” states to adopt common standards and assessments. Never mind the obvious lack of fact-checking (Alabama, Alaska, Minnesota, Utah, and Virginia have received waivers without adopting the standards and/or joining one of the testing consortia). In pointing out the harmful influence of the federal government on states, the amendment clarifies:

“The Race to the Top Assessment grants awarded to the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SMARTER Balance) initiated the development of Common Core State Standards aligned assessments that will, in turn, inform and ultimately influence kindergarten through 12th-grade curriculum and instructional materials.”

And this is an argument against the consortia’s efforts? Because curriculum and instructional materials informed by rigorous, internationally-benchmarked standards sound like a fabulous idea!

Biggest nerd: Disappointing robots everywhere, Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) withdrew an amendment that would have added computer coding as an official “critical foreign language” in the bill.

Stay tuned to Ed Money Watch for continuing coverage of NCLB reauthorization and the Student Success Act (and for more on what the proposal actually does, make sure to download our side-by-side cheat sheet here).

Senate Panel Approves New Early Education Funding for 2014

July 15, 2013
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For more details on the Senate Appropriations Committee Labor-HHS-Education bill, check out this post from our sister blog, Ed Money Watch.

Senate Appropriations Panel Approves 2014 Spending Bill

July 15, 2013
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For more details on early education in the Senate Appropriations Committee Labor-HHS-Education bill, check out this post from our sister blog, Early Ed Watch.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted last week to approve a fiscal year 2014 spending bill for the Departments of Labor, Health & Human Services (HHS), and Education. (Fiscal year 2014 starts this October 1.) That development is a reminder that key funding decisions for education programs are wending their way through Congress, and that the House and Senate could not be further apart in their proposals.

While the House hasn’t yet published or voted on an education appropriations bill for 2014, it indicated earlier this year that it would reduce overall funding substantially – from $150 billion in 2013 to $122 billion next year – for the Departments of Labor, Health & Human Services (HHS), and Education.

Why the big cut? The House wants to conform to the spending limit set forth in law by the Budget Control Act of 2011, which requires total appropriations funding be cut by $18 billion from fiscal year 2013 to 2014, to $966 billion. But the House also wants to hold defense spending harmless in those cuts, with domestic programs making up the difference. (For more details, check out our April issue brief on this issue, Federal Education Budget Update: Fiscal Year 2013 Recap and Fiscal Year 2014 Early Analysis, and our May post, House Could Set Education Funding Back to Year 2001 to Fund Defense.)

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are ignoring the $966 billion overall appropriations limit for fiscal year 2014, and instead drafting bills within a $1.058 trillion limit. The president, for his part, supports that higher level.

Leaving aside the gulf between the House and Senate, the Senate’s committee-passed Labor, HHS, and Education bill totaling nearly $166 billion gives us some clues about senators’ priorities in the budget fight that looms in the latter half of the year. (See table below for more details.)

For most programs, the Senate appropriations bill would reverse the across-the-board spending cuts (sequestration) that took effect earlier this year, and would actually increase funding for many programs. The Senate Appropriations Committee would increase the two largest federal K-12 programs, Title I grants to school districts and special education grants to states, from 2013 levels, even over the pre-sequester total. The committee would also reverse sequestration for Improving Teacher Quality State Grants and the Teacher Incentive Fund, but wouldn’t increase funding over those levels. It would bump up Impact Aid slightly from 2013 pre-sequester totals.

Under the bill, the Obama administration’s signature competitive grant programs, Race to the Top (RTT) and Investing in Innovation (i3), receive funding for new competitions next year. The Department of Education would run a Race to the Top college affordability and completion competition, rather than the early learning and K-12 ones it has already run. But the bill would appropriate only $250 million for the competition, shy of the $548 million it received last year pre-sequester and well short of the administration’s requested $1 billion. It would fund i3, meanwhile, at $170 million, above the $149 million provided in 2013. The committee also approved a healthy increase in funding for state data systems, from $38 million last year to $75 million.

Another of the administration’s own initiatives gets a mention, too: preschool. The Senate Committee explains that the president’s “Preschool for All” program isn’t included in the appropriations bill because the administration requested mandatory funding for it, which is provided outside the appropriations process. (Sen. Patty Murray [D-WA] has said she plans to introduce this portion of the pre-K plan separately.) But the Senate panel did include the president’s requested $750 million for Preschool Development Grants to help states build systems, as well as a $1.6 billion increase to Head Start, much of which will go to the White House’s proposed Early Head Start-child care partnerships.

On the higher education side, the Committee maintains a maximum Pell Grant award of $4,860, which, when combined with supplemental entitlement funding, brings the total figure to an estimated $5,785. It also awarded small funding increases to several pet projects, including international education and the high school intervention programs TRIO and GEAR UP. The president’s request for $250 million for a First in the World higher education competition was not granted.

In total, funding for the Department of Education – and for discretionary spending across these three agencies – would increase next year. But as explained above, it’s so far from what the House has indicated it will support that the two committees may as well be on different planets. It’s too early to say what the ultimate House-Senate agreement looks like for fiscal year 2014 education funding, but not too early to predict that a lot of squabbling lies ahead.

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Storify: House Ed & Workforce Committee ESEA Markup

June 19, 2013

On Wednesday, the House Education & Workforce Committee convened to debate Chairman John Kline's (R-MN) proposed Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization. Ranking Member George Miller (D-CA) also proposed his own version of the bill. ICYMI, here's the play-by-play.

Click here for the Storify of last week's Senate HELP Committee markup.

Storify: House Ed & Workforce Committee ESEA Markup

June 19, 2013

Click here for the Storify of last week's Senate HELP Committee markup.

Update: A New NCLB Reauthorization Cheat Sheet

June 19, 2013

After the partisan markup in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, it is the House of Representatives' turn to debate reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. The Student Success Act, offered by Rep. John Kline (R-MN), is set for a markup Wednesday morning in the House Education and Workforce Committee. Accordingly, we’ve updated our Senate markup cheat sheet to provide a comprehensive, side-by-side comparison of current law, the Obama administration’s waiver policy, and the current legislative proposals in the Senate and House. You can download the new cheat sheet here.

Here are a few of the highlights from the Kline proposal:

  • The Student Success Act would eliminate over 70 programs and consolidate many stand-alone programs (for instance, Title III for English Language Learners) into Title I, with flexibility for states and districts to shift money between them. The bill would also eliminate maintenance of effort requirements, meaning states and local school districts would not be penalized for spending less on required education programs.
  • Kline would not require states to adopt college- and career-ready standards, but they would have to maintain academic content standards – and aligned assessments – in reading, math, and science. And the bill includes really specific language, over and above the Alexander proposal, to prohibit the federal government from promoting participation in the Common Core State Standards initiative in any way.
  • The bill, similar to the Alexander proposal, would allow states to design whatever school accountability and improvement systems they want, including setting performance targets (if any). Kline would also clamp down on the Secretary of Education’s authority to offer waivers to states and districts in exchange for external conditions.
  • Kline, however, would be more prescriptive than either Harkin or Alexander in one area: teacher evaluations, with states required not only to develop them, but also to use the results to make personnel decisions.
  • Kline would not allow Title I funding to follow the child to other public or private schools, but there is speculation that a backpack funding provision could be added to the Student Success Act at a later point. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), for example, has expressed an interest in some sort of portability provision.

Stay tuned to Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch for continuing coverage of these bills and the markup, as well as any alternative proposal from Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the Ranking Member on the House committee. And be sure to follow the markup on Twitter with me, @afhyslop, and my colleagues @LauraBornfreund and @ConorPWilliams

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