As Senators of the Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions Committee debated federal education policy at an abbreviated hearing Wednesday morning, two coalitions of education and civil rights groups released letters poking holes in the bill while the nation's two largest teachers' unions released notes containing partial endorsements.
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. Sen. Tom Harkin's (D-Iowa) rewrite, the first comprehensive reform to the legislation, came out of negotiations with Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).
The bill would require states to have "college and career-ready standards" for student performance, and would replace a system of proficiency targets that labeled many schools as failing with a focus on federal intervention in underperforming schools. With the HELP committee's support, the bill would then move to the Senate floor.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) submitted a formal objection before noon, forcing HELP Committee Chair Harkin to adjourn the hearing. Harkin took the issue to the floor, asking for more time and inciting a back-and-forth between Paul, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).
A wide coalition of civil rights, business and state education officials' groups -- including the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Democrats for Education Reform, Education Trust, Chiefs for Change and La Raza -- released a statement Wednesday morning saying, "We cannot support the bill at this time." The letter criticizes the bill for its "weak accountability system" that "excludes the vast majority of children we represent."
The groups lauded reforms to standards, assessments, funding equity and access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses, but lashed into the Harkin-Enzi draft for rolling back the federal government's role in policing states' education goals:
States would not have to set any measurable achievement and progress targets or even graduation rate goals. They would be required to take action to improve only a small number of low-performing schools. In schools which aren’t among the states' very worst performing, huge numbers of low-achieving students will slip through the cracks.
Federal funding must be attached to firm, ambitious and unequivocal demands for higher achievement, high school graduation rates and gap closing. We know that states, school districts, and schools need a more modern and focused law. However, we respectfully believe that the bill goes too far in providing flexibility by marginalizing the focus on the achievement of disadvantaged students.
While both of the two largest teachers' unions -- the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers -- are members of the Leadership Conference, they did not sign on.
"We certainly agree with some of the concerns raised in the letter, but this is the beginning of a long reauthorization process," said Kim Anderson, NEA's advocacy director. "There will be much more debate to come."
Over the weekend, negotiations with the teachers' unions and HELP committee members led to the release of a manager's amendment that removed a key provision. The provision would have mandated teacher evaluations that included measures of student performance from the federal level. The move provoked the ire of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Monday, who criticized the capitulation.
Also on Wednesday, a second coalition of 11 education reform and civil rights groups organized by Education Trust -- sharing some of the same members and including Educators 4 Excellence, La Raza, DFER and StudentsFirst -- wrote a letter to Harkin and Enzi. The groups called the revocation of the teacher evaluation component a "backward step" that is preventing the groups from supporting the manager's amendment.
"The teacher evaluation and equitable teacher assignment provisions of the manager’s amendment are weaker than these provisions of the original draft," the groups wrote. "This backward step leaves our groups unable to support the manager’s amendment, unless changes are made in these areas before Wednesday’s scheduled mark-up. Your initial draft struck an appropriate balance between demanding change and respecting the discretion of states and school districts to tailor policies to their unique needs. The manager’s amendment topples that balance."
The groups wrote they are "more than willing to work with you" before the bill hits the floor.
StudentsFirst's CEO Michelle Rhee fired off a missive of her own to her group's members Wednesday morning, saying the bill doesn’t go far enough in holding teachers accountable. Rhee implemented a teacher evaluation and merit pay system known as IMPACT before she resigned from chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools a year ago.
"We need your help to make sure the Senate committee that oversees education doesn't let our students down," Rhee wrote.
Meanwhile, the teachers' unions continued to laud the switch.
On Tuesday evening, the NEA, the nation's largest teachers union, sent the Senate education committee a long letter detailing what it sees as the strengths and weaknesses of the bill. The letter lauds the bill for leaving teacher evaluations up to states and local districts, maintaining collective bargaining rights, improving assessments for English language learners and rolling back NCLB's punitive accountability system that scores schools and states based on student proficiency.
"Nevertheless, there is still much work to be done if students and educators are to see real, meaningful, and workable change from the law," the letter continued.
The NEA criticized the draft for including "no requirement for multiple measures of school or student performance" and for not requiring non-test-based teacher evaluations under the Teacher Incentive Fund, which doles outs competitive grants. The group had harsh words for the continuing "focus on testing in narrow subject areas" and for the lack of a transition plan. The NEA also condemned the bill's models for federally mandated "turnaround plans" for underperforming schools, saying that only one model "involves whole school reform."
The AFT also sent the HELP committee a detailed letter Wednesday morning, which in part reflected the civil rights groups' concerns about "limiting accountability to only the lowest 5 percent of schools, and leaving it up to states to address how other schools will be held accountable."
But, according to the letter, the AFT thinks the bill "has maintained some important features of the current law and has made some positive changes to the law where necessary." The AFT praised Harkin and Enzi for dropping the teacher evaluation provision, since "we are starting to see evidence that, without ongoing care and attention, these nascent evaluation systems are being incorrectly structured. ... They listened to the concerns of frontline teachers and others who understand that an evaluation program should not be mandated but should be designed on the local level."
The AFT letter suggests "further improvements" in areas related to accountability, turnaround plans, school autonomy, educator recruiting, the Teacher Incentive Fund, charter schools and the inclusion of Race to the Top.
Harkin's committee could re-adjourn as soon as Wednesday evening.