U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama are confident that members of Congress will revise and reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law this year, just as when they put aside fundamental differences to pass the law in 2001.
But Duncan and the president are deluding themselves, said two of three education insiders during a discussion of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), NCLB’s formal name, at a conference of education writers last week.
Rick Hess, an influential writer at the American Enterprise Institute, put the odds of renewal this year at 5 percent; Sandy Kress, Texas attorney and key adviser for President George W. Bush on NCLB, put it at 6 percent. The optimist among them, Bob Wise, former West Virginia governor and now president of Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, gave it a 50-50 chance.
It’s not that critics on the right and left disagree about many of the law’s fundamental shortcomings: the unrealistic assumption that all students will be proficient in math and English language arts by 2014; the uniform penalties on all schools if only one subgroup of students fails to make the grade; a narrowing of the curriculum caused by the excessive attention to standardized tests in math and English language arts; the failure to pay much attention to high schools.
But the bipartisan consensus that began in the Eisenhower administration and culminated with No Child Left Behind ended soon after the bill was passed, Hess said. What had been all about “moving wheelbarrows of cash” to schools now came with strings attached, and by 2003 Republicans were having buyer’s remorse. This next time, there will be no extra money to paper over differences and hold states harmless from changes in the law, so some states would lose money – one deal-breaking source of conflict, he said.
Obama’s blueprint for ESEA
A year ago, President Obama released a “blueprint” for revising ESEA. It focuses on rewarding the top-performing schools and turning around the lowest performing 5 percent while giving more latitude to the vast majority of schools in between; it would concentrate on ways of improving and distributing effective teachers; and it would require that states measure career and college readiness, either by working with their post-secondary institutions or through Common Core standards that 42 states and the District of Columbia have adopted.
The recognition that states want a law with more flexibility and autonomy creates the possibility of a law this year, Wise said; another impetus is that states will need financial help implementing new Common Core assessments. Wise also is heartened that House Speaker John Boehner helped negotiate NCLB as chairman of the House Education Committee in 2001.
But the mood on Capitol Hill has shifted since November, when the House changed hands with the election of 80 very conservative Republicans. Republican leaders have denounced Obama’s call for a third round of Race to the Top and more incentive grants for performance pay for teachers. In his budget proposal last week, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan proposed slashing domestic spending next year and over the next decade. And while most Republicans wouldn’t go as far as first-term Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s call for abolishing the Department of Education, many, like the new Chairman of the House Education Committee, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a San Diego Republican, would like the federal government’s role scaled back.
Republican suspicion of Common Core
In an interview in Hess’s Education Week blog this week, Hunter cited “a really high chance” of passing ESEA this year. But then he listed disagreements with Obama’s key elements: He opposes competitive grants and more federal education spending. He too is drawing a line in the sand over vouchers for Washington, D.C., public schools – a potentially make or break issue that has become the equivalent for education of what funding for Planned Parenthood has become for health care. And Hunter is distrustful of the federal role in prodding states to adopt Common Core (he says Duncan “conned” them by making it part of Race to the Top) and now in funding the assessments for it.
Under Obama’s plan, Common Core would be the glue holding a reauthorized ESEA together; it could unravel if states start pulling out of the consortia creating the assessments or reconsidering their adoption of the standards.
The Common Core coalition is “broad but very shallow,” with “huge tensions” below the surface, Hess said. “The implementation costs will be enormous; it is naïve to suggest new federal sources of revenue for this.”
Kress said that even without a national test, states will move in a common direction, with results on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) and student scores on the SAT and ACT pressuring states to gradually improve their own standards and tests, which he claimed had been the vision of those behind NCLB.
‘Making the pain go away’
Kress agreed with Hess about a lack of consensus on fundamental issues behind ESEA, but said it was critically important that Congress continue the accountability requirements that started among states in the 1980s and constitute NCLB’s chief achievement – demanding that states pay attention to educational improvement of poor and minority children. If this pressure on states is not maintained, “we’d be taking a huge step backward.”
Wise, the optimist, said that short of a home run, Congress may settle for “singles” – reauthorization through smaller pieces: reforming the School Improvement Grant process for turning failing schools around; supporting the use of data to help states with assessments; funding education research; encouraging or requiring states to establish “early warning” benchmarks to track students’ progress toward graduation.
But Hess said the “fissures are so substantial, nothing is likely to happen” on ESEA. Instead, toward the fall of 2012, Congress will likely act to get rid of the most objectionable parts of NCLB, like the 100 percent student proficiency by 2014 requirement that will label most schools as failing. Pushing the boulder down the hill “will decrease the urgency ofreauthorization,” he said. One thing that Congress is good at is “making the pain go away.”