ESEA Reauthorization

Administration to Move Forward on NCLB Accountability Waiver Plan

August 8, 2011

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced on Friday that the administration plans to proceed with its proposal to issue waivers for states struggling to meet some education accountability standards, including the proficiency targets laid out in No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Congressional action on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has stalled as a result of partisan gridlock and lawmakers distracted by other legislative issues, including the recent debt ceiling bill. While the administration had hoped to reauthorize the legislation by the start of the 2011-2012 school year next month, both the House and Senate are far from tackling the accountability section of the law.

As the 2014 NCLB deadline approaches for states to reach 100 percent proficiency in reading and math, the administration is ramping up efforts to adjust the law without congressional action. Many states and school districts are already falling short of their annual Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals for proficiency and the situation is likely to become more dire as those goals get closer to 100 percent. States which do not reach the ultimate 100 percent goal will be at risk of losing a significant amount of federal dollars that support their students. According to an estimate from the Department of Education, 82 percent of schools will fail to meet AYP under the law this year. Although results thus far suggest that this estimate is likely too high, every state still has cause for concern.

Under the waiver plan, the administration will provide states with some relief from the strict deadlines and labels of failure set forth in NCLB. Governors will be given flexibility to readjust their AYP proficiency targets, provided they maintain high standards. This buys time for states to reach the 100 percent requirement and frees them from some pending sanctions under the current law. Secretary Duncan expressed hope that Congress will act on reauthorization soon regardless, so that the waivers are only a transition between the current deadlines in the law and the next iteration of the legislation. Under the current NCLB law, though, waivers can be offered for up to four years.

Secretary Duncan will not announce the details of the proposal until September. In the meantime, the Department has given some indications of the forthcoming plan, as reported by Ed Week. Outside reviewers will assess applications from states, rather than Department employees. And waivers will be issued this school year, giving states only a few months to compile their applications after the September announcement. That timeline will likely allow states to alter their proficiency standards for the end of the 2011-12 school year; but schools will not feel the regulatory relief from most aspects of the law until the following 2012-2013 school year.

The waivers will also likely be predicated on the state proposals for particular education policy reforms within the states. While all 50 states will be eligible, only those states with serious reform strategies will earn the waivers, providing a massive incentive to state legislatures to adopt the administration’s reforms. The checklist of reforms, which closely reflects the priorities outlined in Race to the Top, will likely include raising standards and executing school improvement plans for struggling schools, as well as improving teacher evaluation systems.

Chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, Republican John Kline, today reaffirmed his concerns that the waiver strategy is a legal overstep of the Department’s authority. A report issued in June by the Congressional Research Service studying the issue found that, based on a review of similar waiver uses by other government agencies, “although individual waivers may face legal challenges…the courts will generally uphold an agency’s exercise of its statutory waiver authority.”

Additionally, CRS offered an opinion on the requirement that states implement certain reforms to earn the waiver. Provided the Department issues the waiver announcement as an invitation for applications, approval of which will be tied directly to voluntary compliance with those reforms, CRS found that the procedure would probably withstand a legal challenge. If compliance was mandatory, courts would be more likely to strike down the waiver authority.

Secretary Duncan was clear that the waivers are intended only to provide regulatory relief to states in the interim before reauthorization, and are not an attempt to usurp legislative authority. The chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Democrat Tom Harkin, reluctantly offered his support for the measure, acknowledging that, while he would prefer to take action in Congress, legislative stalemate will invariably precede reauthorization.

Check back with Ed Money Watch for more following the September announcement from the Department of Education.

Department of Education to Waive Key NCLB Requirements

August 8, 2011

Today Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that the Obama administration will move forward with its plan to offer states “waivers” from No Child Left Behind’s requirement that 100 percent of all public school students be labeled “proficient” in math and reading by 2014.

In exchange for the waivers, states must embrace reform measures, which are expected to shadow the Administration’s education reform priorities such as adopting college- and career-readiness standards and creating teacher and principal evaluation systems that incorporate student achievement growth. The full details of the plan won’t be released until September so we don’t yet know if improving access to high-quality early-learning opportunities could be one of the waiver package’s reform priorities. (But here are some answers to questions the Department has been getting.)

FEBP Website Now Includes Higher Education Data for Every State and Institution

June 15, 2011

Over the past five years, policymakers across the country have turned their focus to the availability and use of education data. These data, whether they focus on funding, demographics, or outcomes, can be important and powerful tools in the policymaking process. Despite national calls for improved access to data (by policymakers, researchers and the public, alike), much of today’s education data are still buried deep inside state and federal agencies or available in inaccessible formats.

The Federal Education Budget Project (FEBP), an initiative of the New America Foundation and Ed Money Watch’s parent initiative, seeks to bring those data into the light. Today, FEBP released the latest version of its website, www.EdBudgetProject.org, which expands upon an already rich array of education data. Since its launch in 2008, FEBP has become the largest, most up-to-date source of information on both K-12 and higher education funding, demographics, and outcomes. See the video below for a brief introduction to the site.

The FEBP website now provides data on every institution of higher education in the country, including an easy-to-read account of federal financial aid trends, student demographics, and student and school outcomes at each institution. These data can be used to compare federal funding across institutions, assess the degree to which students at individual schools have access to various forms of financial aid, and evaluate student and school outcomes at different types of institutions.

The newly released data include:

  • Allocations and disbursements of federal grants and loans such as Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, Grad PLUS Loans, Work-Study, and Perkins Loans;
  • Average grant and loan awards and student participation rates in aid programs;
  • Graduation rates, retention rates, student loan default rates, and student loan repayment rates; and
  • Tuition and fees, including average net price after financial aid.

The new website also features a more user-friendly interface with improved graphics and maps. These changes make the site easier to use and are tailored to the needs of various types of users including policymakers, the media, and the public. The improvements include:

  • A simplified interactive comparison function for both K-12 and higher education data;
  • Faster and easier data downloads for analysts and researchers; and
  • More visually pleasing maps of states, K-12 school districts, and institutions of higher.

The website also includes recently updated K-12 data for every state and school district in the country. These data come from multiple sources including the U.S. Department of Education, state departments of education, and the U.S. Census Bureau. They include:

  • State and district Title I allocations under the recently finalized fiscal year 2011 appropriations;
  • State IDEA, Impact Aid, School Nutrition, and Education Jobs Fund allocations; and
  • State and school district per pupil expenditure and demographic data for 2009.

The new version of the FEBP website allows users to follow the flow of federal dollars to states, K-12 school districts, and institutions of higher education. It is a useful tool that combines data on funding, demographics and outcomes from multiple sources and makes them all available in one easy-to-use place. Additionally, the site provides background and analysis on major federal education programs, national rankings maps and analysis, and policy papers and issue briefs.

Check back with Ed Money Watch over the coming weeks as we dive into the new K-12 and higher education data as part of our “Examining the Data” series.

Distribution of School Improvement Grants among Schools Varies Widely by State

June 2, 2011

School Improvement Grants (SIG), a federal program that provides funding to states to help support struggling schools, has been a topic of much discussion in the education policy community ever since Congress and the Obama Administration made it the target of major restructuring and a big funding boost under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Now there is new insight into the effects of the policy and funding changes.

A new report from the American Institutes for Research (AIR), Baseline Analyses of SIG Applications and SIG-Eligible and SIG-Awarded Schools, follows the flow of SIG funds from the initial application process down to local school districts. The AIR report mirrors many of the findings of a recent Ed Sector report that compiled new SIG data, discussed in last month’s Ed Money Watch blog post. But the authors also find startlingly large variation among the states in the proportion of total SIG funding that states awarded to schools and in the number of SIG dollars that states spent per student.

First, some quick background on how the School Improvement Grant program works. The U.S. Department of Education distributes SIG grants, part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, to the states according to Title I formulas, and state education agencies ultimately distribute the funds to local education agencies (LEAs) based on school improvement proposals those LEAs submit to the state for each eligible school. A state agency cannot distribute more than $2 million per year to an individual school. States rank eligible schools as Tier I, II, or III according to the severity of their needs as determined by student achievement, high school graduation rates (if applicable), and other, state-defined benchmarks.

States are required to provide funding for Tier I and II schools before Tier III schools; so predictably, the report finds that Tier I and II schools tended to receive larger awards, as a proportion of total spending in those schools. But even this trend, the authors found, was not the case in all states. For example, Louisiana Tier III schools received a 9 percent bump in total funding as a result of SIG funds, whereas SIG funds comprised only a 3 percent increase over baseline spending in Tier I and II schools.

Discrepancies among states in the size of funding awards for Tier I and II schools are more apparent when looking at the authors’ analysis of how states spent SIG funds on a per-pupil basis. Kansas awarded $3,150 per SIG school student and Alabama awarded $3,740. Both states made awards above the national average of $1,330 per student in SIG awards and far exceed the less-than-$500 average per-pupil awards in Louisiana ($380) and Vermont ($410). In four states, SIG awards accounted for an increase in total per-pupil expenditure of only six percent or less. In eleven states, the SIG spending resulted in an increase of 30 percent or more.

The authors find that in some states SIG awards do not account for significant increases in spending, either overall or per pupil, while in others the increase is quite dramatic. This leaves readers to wonder whether these inequities in SIG funding could undermine the efficacy of the program because the funds will not have an equal impact in schools across states. With such clear inconsistencies across state borders, the question arises: What is the value of a SIG dollar from state to state, district to district, and school to school?

School Improvement Grants constitute a substantial chunk of change—$3.5 billion available through the end of the 2013 school year, with funding supplied via the 2009 regular annual appropriation and supplemented by one-time funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But, as the report shows, states distributed the funds in different ways and there is no guarantee that the money will benefit students as much in one state as in another. To be sure, per-pupil expenditure is not a singular determinant of student success—how states and schools spend that money is a far greater factor—but the availability of resources for each student is critical nonetheless. It’s also the implicit purpose of the SIG program.

The Obama Administration in its ESEA reauthorization proposal renames the SIG program School Turnaround Grants and reinforces the structure of the program currently defined in regulations. However, the AIR report casts some doubt on the efficacy of that design, suggesting that there is room for improvement in the program, particularly in ensuring adequate per-student SIG awards. As Congress gears up to consider changes to the ESEA this year, lawmakers should bear in mind these findings on the School Improvement Grant program.

‘Carrots, Sticks and the Bully Pulpit’ at AEI

June 1, 2011

Last week, Early Ed Watch attended an event at the American Enterprise Institute on the federal role in public education. Five panels – discussing 11 papers – explored the last 50 years of federal education policy. The point was to ask whether federal incentives, penalties and role-modeling – the “carrots, sticks and bully pulpit” of the event’s title – are doing any good in improving American education.

Mining Ed Sector's Data on School Improvement Grants

April 26, 2011

School Improvement Grants have become a point of contention in Washington and across the country. Many believe that the $4 billion program, which provides grants to help turnaround struggling schools, has become too rigid and represents intrusive federal meddling in local affairs. But few proponents or opponents of the program ever discuss in detail where the funds are actually being used and what the schools receiving them look like. Today, Ed Sector released a report, accompanied by a new data tool, which fills in some of those details. The tool, which provides an interactive map of School Improvement Grant (SIG) recipients, is based on a wealth of data on the 843 schools that have received SIG grants so far. In addition to the tool, Ed Sector has made these data available to the public so we can find out even more on our own.

The Ed Sector report, A Portrait of School Improvement Grantees, gives a great run down of the basics. Of the 843 grantees so far, more than half – 58 percent – are in urban areas. Of the remaining schools 18 percent are rural, 17 percent suburban, and 7 percent in towns as defined by the National Center for Education Statistics. Nearly half of the recipients are high schools – a new pattern for SIG recipients because most high schools do not receive Title I funds. Twenty percent are middle schools, 24 percent are elementary schools, and 6 percent are “other” types of schools like K-8 or 7-12 schools. And the vast majority of grantees – 73 percent – selected the transformation model for their improvement strategy. This model is considered the least rigorous of the options. Twenty-one percent chose the turnaround model, 4 percent are restarting, and 2 percent are closing entirely.

Using the data provided by Ed Sector, we can look deeper into these patterns. For example, we find that of the 19 schools that chose closure as their improvement model, 9 are high schools (47.4 percent), 8 are middle schools (42.1 percent), and 2 are primary schools (10.5 percent). Of the schools that chose the turnaround model, 67 are high schools (38.7 percent), 40 are middle schools (23.1 percent) and 60 are primary schools (34.7 percent). This shows that the distribution of schools within each improvement model varies significantly by school level.

The Ed Sector data also includes some information on the demographics of students who attend the SIG recipient schools (data are from 2008). The average free and reduced price lunch rate at high schools that received a SIG grant is 67.6 percent. This is significantly less than the FRPL rate at middle and primary schools, which is 80.0 percent and 81.2 percent, respectively. However, high schools typically under identify students eligible for free or reduced price lunch, which could explain why the FRPL rate at these schools is so much lower. Unsurprisingly, the FRPL rate was also higher at rural and urban schools - 71.2 percent and 76.0 percent respectively - than at suburban schools – 68.9 percent.

Finally, we can explore some details about the size of the SIG grants different types of schools will receive. For example, the average size of a total SIG grant is $2,409,716 for a high school, $2,376,471 for a middle school, and $1,972,235 for a primary school. Urban schools get the largest SIG grants, an average of $2,494,640, and rural schools get the smallest, an average of $1,708,965. Interestingly, this does not directly follow school enrollment patterns. While rural schools are by far the smallest – an average enrollment of 411 students, suburban schools are the largest with an average of 912 students.

Ed Sector’s new data tool provides an important resource as the SIG discussion continues. It provides valuable information on which schools are receiving grants and their characteristics. Hopefully data will continue to be available on SIG grantees, continuing expenditures, and even measures of success. This is the information that should determine the future of the School Improvement Grant program, not complaints over federal intrusion.

To download a spreadsheet containing this data, click here.

Two Senators Propose Commission on Education Regulation

March 31, 2011

Local school and district leaders have long complained about the competing and duplicative regulations from the federal, state, and local level. In many cases, these regulations – from financial reporting to resource accounting – create additional burdens for districts and schools. While many leaders have chalked up the redundant nature of these regulations as a necessary evil of the way public education in America is currently funded, two U.S. Senators put forth legislation to form a commission that would help identify and eliminate ineffective and redundant regulations.

Senate bill 622, as proposed by Senators Bennet (D-CO) and Alexander (R-TN), would create the Commission on Effective Regulation and Assessment Systems for Public Schools. Though the bi-partisan sponsorship of the bill suggests that it may be politically viable, it seems unlikely that it would find much traction in the House of Representatives because the bill represents additional federal involvement in state and local affairs.

According to the bill language, the Commission would be made up of Governors, legislators, state school officers, teachers, experts, and other education stakeholders. Notably missing from the list are teachers union representatives or parents. The Commission would meet every six months and publish an annual report of its findings. The bill authorizes no funds for the program because Commission participants would not be compensated.

The duties of the Commission would include examining and reviewing federal, state, and local regulations, identifying areas of redundancy, assessing the cost of implementing these various regulations, and investigating the degree to which local interpretations of these regulations create additional burdens for schools and districts.

This certainly seems like a worthy effort for a national commission, particularly given the increasing burden on schools and districts as a result of extensive reporting and data requirements. Perhaps of most value would be the work the Commission would do on local interpretations of regulations. As we have mentioned during previous discussions of Title I provisions like supplement not supplant, local interpretations of federal laws can cause unnecessary stress for local officials and prevent innovation in schools.

The Commission would also examine current testing and assessment structures to make sure that these processes are efficient, effective, and meaningful. This would include reviewing federal, state, and local testing requirements, identifying the purpose or goal of each test, determining the quality of these assessments, and reporting on the frequency and efficiency with which results are made available to the public. Many school officials believe that, like regulations, education tests and assessments are becoming burdensome and redundant. Some states have separate tests for No Child Left Behind accountability, high school graduation, and end of course exams. This has resulted in a loss of instruction time and frustration among teachers, parents and students.

The Commission established by the Bennet/Alexander bill would examine regulatory and testing burdens for schools and districts with the hope of bringing some relief. Eliminating these burdens will be particularly important as districts try to cut costs and increase efficiency during difficult economic times. Political realities, however, may make the Commission impossible. It might make it into a Senate version of an Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization bill, especially given the bi-partisan support it currently enjoys. The House, though, is unlikely to run with the idea because it involves increased federal oversight in state and local decisions.

Regardless of the political viability of the bill, it is refreshing to see collaboration across the aisle on education issues. Hopefully this collaboration will spill over into the greater Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization process.

Fixing Title I Should Start with Supplement, Not Supplant and Comparability

March 15, 2011

This post has been updated.

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as No Child Left Behind) is the largest federal K-12 grant program at $14.5 billion annually. The program aims to provide additional funding for services for low-income students, and approximately 17 million children receive Title I services. As Congress prepares to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Title I is likely to play a starring role in the debates over changes to the law. Last week, the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute hosted an event that explored various issues surrounding Title I including recommendations for improving the existing program. Perhaps most central to the discussion was the panel on the fiscal requirements of Title I, “supplement, not supplant” and “comparability.” Though both requirements are intended to work together to ensure that Title I funds are used properly, the currently over-cautious implementation of supplement, not supplant could undermine attempts to strengthen the comparability provision.

Supplement, not supplant refers to a requirement that districts use Title I funds to add new services rather than replace state and local funding for services. In theory, this requirement makes sense – districts should not be allowed to replace state or local funding for education services with Title I funds. In practice, however, the supplement, not supplant provision, which is enforced through an audit process, prevents districts and schools from implementing new and innovative educational interventions and programs. Essentially, auditors examine school and district budgets to ensure that Title I funds are not used to support expenditures that were previously funded through other sources.

Comparability, on the other hand, is intended to ensure that school districts provide equitable resources to low-income and higher-income schools before the addition of federal Title I funds. However, the methods currently in use to test comparability ignore actual funding by relying on alternative resource measures like student-teacher ratios and teacher salary schedules. Most importantly, comparability currently allows districts to ignore variation in teacher salaries across schools due to years of experience. Because more experienced, and therefore more expensive, teachers tend to work in higher-income schools, low-income schools tend to receive less funding.

Until now, there has been little evidence available on the extent to which the current comparability provision allows for drastic resource inequities between high- and low-income schools. “Sunshine for the Sunshine State: Evidence of fiscal inequity within Florida’s public school districts,” one of the papers presented at Friday’s conference, provides an in-depth look at these inequities in Florida. Specifically, the paper finds that teachers in low-income schools in Florida do indeed have lower salaries than teachers in higher-income schools. For example, an analysis conducted in the paper shows that an average teacher in an average school in Florida with a 70 percent poverty rate would be compensated $1,065 less than an average teacher at a school with a 20 percent poverty rate.

The paper also examines variation in per pupil expenditures in low- and higher-income schools. Although the analysis suggests that schools receive $56 more per pupil, on average, for every 10 percentage point increase in poverty rate, this does not suggest that comparability is actually achieved in these schools. The per pupil expenditure amount includes Title I funding, which means one would expect low-income schools to receive more per pupil than higher-income schools. However, the difference – $56 – is likely not large enough to suggest that state and local funds provided equitable funding before the addition of the Title I dollars.

Based on this evidence, it is clear that the current comparability provision is not rigorous enough to ensure equitable funding for schools. The paper suggests changing the provision to require districts to submit data on actual per pupil expenditures, including variation in teacher salary due to experience, to demonstrate comparability. Districts should also be prohibited from forcing teacher transfers to achieve comparability. Instead, districts and schools should be able to look to other, non-teacher salary related expenditures to provide services to low-income students.

In the end, supplement, not supplant is a major barrier to making these changes. Until schools and districts are able to more freely spend their Title I funds without fear of audit violations, Title I expenditures will remain tied to traditional services like teacher salaries. Though supplement, not supplant is rooted in reasonable fears about district manipulation of federal funds, the lack of flexibility is handcuffing district and school leaders. Congress and the Department of Education need to find a better way to implement the provision. Once that is complete, improvements to comparability and other aspects of Title I will be easier to achieve.

Comparability is About More than Transferring Teachers

March 3, 2011

One of the most controversial rules under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act is the comparability provision of Title I. This provision is intended to ensure that school districts provide schools that receive funding under Title I ($14.5 billion in fiscal year 2010) and those that do not with equitable state and local resources before the addition of federal Title I funds. Yet statute still allows resource inequities to persist, undermining the goal of Title I funding and disadvantaging low-income students and the schools they attend. Earlier this week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on the potential effects of strengthening the comparability law. Unfortunately, the report fails to take a hard line on the importance of ensuring equitable funding for Title I schools primarily because it focuses on transferring teachers, rather than rethinking how educational services are provided.

Current law allows school districts to meet the federal comparability rule through methods that obscure the amount of state and local funding that schools receive before they are allocated federal Title I funding. For example, districts can demonstrate comparability by comparing student-instructional staff ratios between Title I and non-Title I schools or by presenting a district-wide salary schedule that demonstrates that all teachers with similar qualification earn the same amount of money in the district. These methods overlook the variation in teacher pay due to years of experience, a significant factor in teacher salaries.

Because more experienced, and therefore higher paid teachers tend to work in higher-income schools, low-income, Title I schools employ primarily less experienced, lower-paid teachers. As a result, higher-income schools receive a greater share of state and local funds to pay for their teachers than low-income schools. But an observer viewing school resources through only the comparability rule would never know it.

The GAO finds that the vast majority of school districts use the teacher-student ratio option to demonstrate comparability. District officials they interviewed said that meeting this requirement was not challenging.

As a result of the shortcomings in the comparability provision of the law, education advocates and policymakers have proposed strengthening comparability by requiring districts to demonstrate equitable distribution of actual per pupil expenditures, including teacher salaries that reflect years of experience. Though this proposal has been controversial, it appears to be the most reliable way to measure and compare the resources schools actually receive – if that is truly what policymakers want the rule to do.

The GAO concludes that some districts would struggle to demonstrate comparability under this proposed method. Some districts reported that they would have to transfer teachers among schools or renegotiate teacher contracts, harming morale and union relationships. It also concludes that sending more experienced teachers to low-income schools may not improve quality at those schools. It certainly sounds like the GAO is saying low-income schools do not currently receive equitable resources in terms of actual spending, but that it’s not worth the trouble to strengthen the comparability rules.

This conclusion is disappointing on a number of levels.

First, the report fails to take seriously the degree to which low-income Title I schools receive inferior resources. In fact, the GAO did not even attempt to assess the degree to which this is in fact the case.

But more importantly, the report shows a complete lack of understanding of the purpose of strengthening comparability. The purpose is not to force experienced teachers into low income schools. It is widely recognized that this is a bad idea for both the teachers and the students and currently proposed legislation would forbid forced transfers. Instead, the purpose is to ensure that low-income students are receiving the services they need to overcome obstacles and succeed in school and beyond. This does not necessarily require expensive teachers; it could be accomplished with well thought-out and implemented programs both in and out of the classroom.

For example, the comparability requirement could be met by providing Title I schools with additional funding, not for teacher salaries, but for a targeted math support program or an afternoon tutoring program. The addition of a single academic counselor could potentially do more in low-income schools than trading in three new teachers for three teachers with 20 years of experience. Rethinking how low-income schools provide educational services and reapportioning resources accordingly is the key to reaching comparability, not teacher transfers.

By reducing this issue to one of the difficulty surrounding transferring teachers, the GAO report does a disservice to legislators and stakeholders that are interested in strengthening comparability. The report suggests that there is no room for creative thinking around resource distribution among schools, giving schools a free pass when it comes to ensuring that low-income students are given the support they need. We’d like to see the GAO and other government agencies take a closer look at the actual impact of existing resource inequities and propose ways districts can rethink they way they fund schools and support their students. Just because strengthening comparability will be hard does not mean it isn’t worth doing.

State Education Chiefs Impatient for ESEA Reauthorization

February 3, 2011

No Child Left Behind, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, has been up for reauthorization since 2007. President Obama made education a central tenet of his recent State of the Union Address, encouraging Congress to reauthorize the law. And many education stakeholders have been speculating as to whether Congress will find enough common ground to pass a new bill this year. As Ed Week recently reported, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) has joined the choir of organizations pushing Congress to undertake reauthorization this year through a letter to Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chair Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Ranking Member Senator Michael Enzi (R-WY). Perhaps most importantly, the letter makes clear that states are not willing to wait much longer for a new version of ESEA to begin implementing new reforms.

The letter describes the state education chiefs’ dedication to implementing reforms like common standards, rigorous assessments, and better data systems; outlines priorities for ESEA reauthorization like better accountability systems, more flexibility, and higher quality teacher evaluation systems; and declares that absent reauthorization, states will begin to propose their own reform plans focused on college and career readiness, improving student outcomes, and supporting low-performing schools.

This last point is likely the most important statement in the letter. Prior to No Child Left Behind, few states had in place accountability systems linked to statewide tests, data systems that could track students over time, or methods for identifying chronically underperforming schools. The federal government had to legislate that states engage in these activities, making them a condition of receiving billions of dollars in Title I and other federal funding. Initially, many states grudgingly implemented these systems, decrying the lack of local control over schools and curricula and the increase in federal influence.

But nearly 10 years later, state officials are expressing their desire to implement advanced versions of these systems, even embracing the possibilities of collaboration across states. Though the state chiefs still want the ability to tailor accountability systems to their states’ needs and generally more flexibility than No Child Left Behind allows, a clearly important component of any education legislation, this letter represents a pretty dramatic shift from the past.

In fact, many of the ideas outlined in the letter reflect the priorities specified in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition. Better standards and assessments, data use, and support for struggling schools are all mentioned explicitly in both Race to the Top and the CCSSO letter. Perhaps the Obama administration was on target in identifying these areas of focus. After all, Race to the Top led states to focus more deeply on these issues and assemble plans to address them.

What will this letter mean in the long run? Of course, just because CCSSO wrote a letter doesn’t mean it expresses the sentiments of every single state. Surely some states will choose not to offer new reform plans or will insist on dialing back some of the progress they have already made. And many of these types of reforms trigger divisive debates within states that may overshadow the dedication of their education chiefs. But it does suggest that the majority of states grasp the urgency of improving ESEA and those states are willing to take matters into their own hands to do so.

Now it is up to Congress to decide whether education truly will be the bi-partisan issue of 2011 or just another political powder keg.

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