Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) shifted a major teacher evaluation requirement out of his rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- known as No Child Left Behind -- over the weekend, shifting the dynamics of the debate over the bill's passage.
The initial sweeping education law called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was enacted in 1965, and a 2001 reauthorization under George W. Bush took on the name, "No Child Left Behind." The law has been up for reauthorization since 2007. Harkin's rewrite, the first comprehensive reform to the legislation, came out of negotiations with Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions committee that Harkin chairs.
Harkin released a draft of the bill last week that required school districts and states which receive educator development funding to create teacher evaluation systems that would take student performance into account. But changes over the weekend through a manager's amendment removed the requirement from the bill, instead shifting the teacher evaluation component to a competitive grant program called the Teacher Incentive Fund.
A Harkin staffer told The Huffington Post that the changes resulted from conversations with teachers, teachers' unions, and HELP committee members. Harkin reluctantly shifted the language in search of a bipartisan path forward, the staffer explained on background because she wasn't authorized to speak on the record about the issue.
The changes resulted in Enzi's first public showing of enthusiastic support for the bill. "This is not a perfect bill, nor does it solve every education issue," Enzi said Monday in a statement. "But it will make a huge, positive difference to our nation's young people."
The move led to increased support from teachers' unions, but the withdrawal of support from data-driven education reform groups. It also led to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's criticism of Harkin's capitulation.
"A comprehensive evaluation system based on multiple measures, including student achievement, is essential for education reform to move forward," Duncan said in a statement. "This view is shared by both national teacher unions and state leaders all across the country who are committed to doing a better job of preparing our young people for the global economy. We cannot retreat from reform."
But it was the lobbying of those national teachers' unions, in part, that led to the switch. After harsh words last week, the unions -- some of the top campaign contributors in national politics -- revised their appraisals of the bill Monday.
"We commend Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) for the case and thoughtfulness with which they are approaching this task," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a Monday statement.
Weingarten noted that she would still like to see changes to the bill's turnaround plans for underperforming schools, but continued, "We are pleased to see that significant changes already have been made in a substantial proposal concerning teacher evaluations."
The National Education Association is also advocating for adjustments to the bill's turnaround plans, but NEA President Dennis Van Roekel expressed support for the evaluation change in a Monday statement.
"We have offered a new framework that local school districts can use for teacher evaluations," Van Roekel said. "As a result, we are pleased to see that the latest version of the bill recognizes that the federal government's role is limited in this arena."
But Charles Barone, who directs federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, said that the initial version of the bill squared with the evaluation proposal Van Roekel referenced.
"The NEA will always goldilocks you," Barone said. "Harkin took the evaluations statement Van Roekel made a few months ago and put it in the bill, and then didn't have his support. What they wound up with was nothing."
The Teacher Incentive Fund's inclusion of the teacher evaluation provision means little since the Department of Education already includes evaluations in its TIF regulations, said The New Teacher Project President Tim Daly.
"This was one of the few things in the bill that pushed things forward in terms of demanding more from states," Daly said. "Now they're pulling it back."
Daly said he found the overall thrust of the bill incoherent.
"Even if some people didn’t like NCLB, it was fairly clear in its goals," Daly said. "At this point, it would be better to put it down and walk away from it and re-attack it."
But Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators -- a group that lobbied against the provision, along with the AFT and NEA -- is preparing a letter that sings Harkin's and Enzi's praises.
"There is no evidence from academicians and researchers that you can use student test scores to evaluate teachers accurately," Hunter said. "It's a concern about us using the wrong tool, and making bad decisions that cause us personnel problems."
The bill is set as a starting point for a full HELP committee discussion on Oct. 19. With sufficient support, it will face a Senate floor vote and then a conference committee with the House.
The bill also found another new ally on Monday: Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Alexander, a former U.S. Secretary of Education who has released his own set of NCLB bills, came out in in favor of the Harkin-Enzi bill -- with modifications. In a floor speech, Alexander said Congress should begin passing NCLB legislation, lauding the bill as a "first step in the right direction." His modifications, he continued, would "stop the legislation from creating a national school board."
"There is no reason why Congress should not be able to send legislation fixing No Child Left Behind to the President by Christmas," Alexander wrote in a letter to Harkin and Enzi.
Alexander referenced the Obama administration's recent move to overhaul NCLB without Congress by granting states waivers from its strictures. "If Congress does not act now, our inaction will transform the U.S. Secretary of Education into a waiver-granting czar over an unworkable law."
UPDATE 1:50 p.m.: The NEA's Manager of Federal Advocacy Mary Kusler sent HuffPost a statement responding to Barone's remarks:
NEA continues to stand by its policy statement released earlier this year, which calls for a comprehensive overhaul for both teacher evaluation and accountability systems. We don't, however, believe that the federal government is the right entity to be mandating teacher evaluations. It doesn't dictate the terms and conditions for police, firefighters, or any other state or local employees, and shouldn't start dictating these for educators. Our educators are having much success working at the local and state levels to create teacher evaluation systems that work for all involved.
In response, Barone noted what he sees as inconsistencies between the NEA's support for federal money to save teacher jobs and disdain for the federal government's involvement in mandating teacher evaluations.
This story was also updated to better reflect Duncan's statement.
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