Democrats across and beyond the nation's capital -- in the administration, on Capitol Hill, in advocacy groups, and in think tanks -- are up in arms about the ESEA reauthorization proposals released by House GOP leaders on Friday. Or at least they are pretending to be. While they contained a few surprises, the House bills were pretty much as one would expect: significantly to the right of both the Senate's Harkin-Enzi bill and the package put forward by Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and his colleagues. In the parlance that we've been using at Fordham for three years now, the House GOP embodies the views of the Local Controllers, Senator Alexander embraces Reform Realism, and Harkin-Enzi represents a mishmash of ideas from the Army of the Potomac and the System Defenders.
But while there are significant differences among the players, a clear path toward a workable, maybe even bipartisan, package is still visible. In short: All roads lead to Lamar. Not only does the Alexander package represent smart policy, it also serves as a sort of midpoint between the Senate bill that passed out of committee and the House GOP bill that is likely to do the same. Let's tackle the five big issues:
- Requirements for standards and tests. The administration and the Senate (including supporters of both the Harkin-Enzi and Alexander measures) want states to adopt standards that indicate college and career readiness; the House Republicans don't. The real issue at stake is not just differing views of big, pushy Uncle Sam but also the new Common Core standards initiative, and whether federal policy should encourage (or even coerce) states to participate. The House GOP bill comes out swinging, stating that "the Secretary shall not attempt to influence, incentivize, or coerce state participation" in any work on common standards or tests. On the other hand, the same bill also says states must develop accountability systems that "ensure that all public school students graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary education or the workforce without the need for remediation." That amounts to college and career readiness, right? Proponents of the Common Core should simply swallow their pride and accept the House language. It doesn't really matter, anyway; with forty-six states already on board, those of us who support the Common Core should have a very quiet victory party and then move on to hoping that at least one of the two test-building consortia devises a workable assessment system.
Where the House GOP gets it wrong is in scrapping the requirement that states test students in science. Reducing transparency around science achievement isn't a smart way to promote flexibility or cost savings; current law is fine on that point. Indeed, the more Washington substitutes transparency for regulation, the more data it should insist be transparent -- and more it should want those data to span as much of the curriculum as possible, not just reading and math.
Alexander's language represents a reasonable middle ground, and it's not bad. States must establish "a system of identifying and differentiating among all public elementary schools and secondary schools in the State based on student academic achievement and any other factors determined appropriate by the State [that] also takes into account achievement gaps...and overall performance of all students and of each category of students." That gives the states clear guidance and plenty of room for flexibility but maintains the focus on the performance of disadvantaged students. Next?
Personally, I like the House approach, since the federal government doesn't have the expertise or capacity to enforce a system of sanctions anyway. But that also means this is another symbolic debate; it doesn't really matter what Congress writes into law, since it will be impossible to implement. So adopting the compromise Senate language wouldn't be the end of the world.
This might be the toughest area around which to forge common ground. The unions will fight to eliminate the evaluation mandate, and few "local control" Republicans will push back, I suspect. So expect it to get tossed. The HQT mandate is an abomination, beloved by nobody, so I'm hopeful that it will get killed. But conservatives will probably have to cede some ground on the "inequitable distribution" policies. A good first step would be to require states to collect and make public data on the distribution of effective teachers -- though without a teacher evaluation mandate, it's hard to understand how that would work. What's most doable, then, would be a new requirement for districts to report actual spending, school by school, and include the real cost of teachers' salaries and benefits in those data.
This truly is not rocket science; with a little presidential leadership and goodwill from both parties, a deal could be hammered out quickly. We haven't had much of any of that in recent months, however -- an issue voters might raise come November.
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