Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) released his draft of the Elementary and Secondary Achievement Act -- known as "No Child Left Behind" -- on Tuesday, defending its much-criticized rollback of federally mandated targets for student performance as a product of compromise.
"I would have liked to have had performance targets," Harkin said during a Tuesday morning call with reporters. Harkin, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, negotiated for months with Ranking Member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). "We talked about this for days and weeks on end. Again, this is a compromise."
Harkin said that the bill's federally mandated interventions -- which would require a state to identify five percent of its lowest-performing schools, in addition to five percent of its schools with the highest achievement gaps -- would help keep states' performance on track.
Harkin's bill, which he will tweak until Friday, is set as a starting point for a full HELP committee discussion Oct. 18. With sufficient support, it will face a Senate floor vote and then a conference committee with the House.
The initial education law enacted in 1965 was called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and a reauthorization under George W. Bush took on the name, "No Child Left Behind." The law has been up for reauthorization since 2007.
House education committee leader John Kline (R-Minn.) has said he's committed to reauthorizing NCLB in piecemeal bills. Kline's charter-school oversight measure passed the House with bipartisan support. His other bills differ from Harkin's with regard to slashing fewer NCLB programs and states' funding flexibility.
It is as of yet unclear how Harkin's and Kline's two versions can be reconciled.
Harkin said he is hopeful the bill can get through committee next week and get past the Senate floor before Thanksgiving. Harkin is also optimistic that the bill "can be instructive to the House" in terms of NCLB reauthorization.
"If the House takes a strictly partisan approach to this, well then, I guess we're doomed," Harkin said.
Kline's office did not return calls for comment.
Frustrated with Congress's inability to renew the law up to this point, the Obama administration recently announced it would essentially rewrite NCLB without Congress's help by granting waivers to states that agree to certain reforms. Harkin said he hopes his bill could be passed before the waivers -- which would allow a state to opt out of certain NCLB provisions -- go into effect.
Like the current version of NCLB, Harkin's bill requires regular testing of students and disaggregation of test results into student sub-groups. Harkin's bill also mandates "college and career-ready standards" and adequate tests for measuring critical thinking. His proposed legislation also requires "equitable distribution" of teachers among schools with the greatest need.
The biggest difference between Harkin's bill and NCLB is that NCLB currently requires that states use raw numbers of students proficient in math or reading to determine whether "Adequate Yearly Progress" measures are met, or face escalating sanctions. Harkin's bill allows states to develop their own accountability systems instead.
Raul Gonzalez, legislative director for the National Council of La Raza, said his organization was abstaining from taking a stance on the bill until further review, but still voiced his concerns.
"It's moving away from progress targets and moving towards a pre-No Child Left Behind system of continuous, unsubstantial improvement with no targets," he said. He added that he thinks the focus on the achievement gap and low-performing schools would create two school systems, one with a predominantly minority population.
While some have criticized the move for the lack of performance targets, calling it a rollback of the federal government's role in education, Harkin called the move a "subtle shift."
"We are moving into a partnership mode with the states rather than this one where the federal government is telling states you have to do this, this, this and this," Harkin said.
"A bipartisan bill will not have everything that everyone wants, but it must build on our common interests: high standards; flexibility for states, school districts and schools; and a more focused federal role that promotes equity, accountability and reform," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement about Harkin's bill Tuesday. "This bill is a very positive step toward a reauthorization that will provide our students and teachers with the support they need."
The proposal generally follows the administration's blueprint in calling for "college- and career-ready standards" and targeting low-performing schools. But the bill's turnaround plans for these schools vary from the those of the administration. Where the administration would mandate the use of teacher evaluations in personnel decisions, Harkin's bill stops short of that. The bill also specifies that teacher evaluations must include student achievement and classroom observations, but does not require the use of value-added measurements to track student growth.
Harkin's bill allows some funds to be used on class-size reduction in early grades, and focuses on performance of principals. It also creates several new grant programs and eliminates four existing programs.
The bill has so far failed to secure the endorsement of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the country's two largest teachers' unions.
The NEA said it is waiting until Friday to make any official statement in the hopes that Harkin revises language of the bill regarding teacher evaluations. An NEA official said the organization believes teacher evaluations should be mandated from the local, not federal, level.
The AFT similarly said it was reserving judgement.
“When done correctly, evaluation with tools and supports for teachers can lead toward a path of vibrant instruction," AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement Tuesday. "When done incorrectly, it becomes just a human resources sorting mechanism that devalues teachers, limits their growth and undercuts our children’s education.”
A coalition of six civil rights groups, including NCLR, the Children's Defense Fund and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, sent a letter to Harkin and Enzi on Tuesday expressing their concern with the bill.
The coalitions wrote, "The loss of goals and progress targets would dismantle the positive aspects of NCLB’s accountability system and be a significant step backward that we can ill afford to take."