Predictions and Predilections for a New ESEA

If you stop and listen, you can hear it: The country yearning, praying, hoping for some sign that our political leaders can get their acts together and get something done, something constructive that will solve real problems and move the country forward again. In 2001, in the wake of 9/11, that something was the No Child Left Behind Act, which was the umpteenth renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). A reauthorization of the ESEA (on its fiftieth anniversary no less) could play the same role again: showing America that bipartisan governance is possible, even in Washington.

Thankfully, both incoming chairmen of the relevant Senate and House committees—Lamar Alexander and John Kline—have indicated that passing an ESEA reauthorization is job number one. And friends in the Obama administration tell me that Secretary Duncan is ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work on something the president could sign. So far, so good.

So what should a new ESEA entail? And could it both pass Congress and be signed by President Obama? Let me take a crack at something that could.

First, let’s set the context. For at least six years, we at the Fordham Institute have talked about “reform realism” in the context of federal education policy—recommending that Washington’s posture should be reform-minded but also realistic about what can be accomplished from the shores of the Potomac (and cognizant of how easy it is for good intentions to go awry). While Secretary Duncan gave early, encouraging indications that he supported such an approach, in recent years, regrettably, his department has moved ahead with an aggressive, constitutionally questionable policy of conditional waivers, leading to a fierce backlash against federal overreach. (Of course, his actions and statements on Common Core haven’t helped, either.)

So it’s even more important than it was six years ago—both politically and substantively—that a reauthorized ESEA pay heed to the “realism” part of reform realism. Put another way, no ESEA will be supported by the next Congress—at least by its Republican majority—unless it shortens Uncle Sam’s leash. If you don’t believe that the federal role should be smaller than it is today, then you can’t claim to be serious about wanting ESEA to be reauthorized. Not in the 114th Congress.

That doesn’t mean that Washington must foreswear reform. To devolve everything to the states would be much like saying, “Here’s fifteen billion dollars in Title I money a year—do whatever you want with it.” The federal government may be a minority investor, but it still has a duty to demand something constructive in return. (Call it accountability for the taxpayer’s dollar.)

The challenge, then, is to find the right spot on the continuum between today’s coercive, micromanaging federal role and “leave the money on the stump”—a spot that is realistic about Washington’s proper role (and capacity) in the education cosmos, but that still nudges the system in a reform direction.

The elements of a new ESEA

In my view, that means a big focus on transparency, both around student achievement (disaggregated every which way) and around spending (at the school level). And that’s it.

In particular, it would mean:

Annual testing. The talk of the town is that Alexander and Kline might let go of ESEA’s annual testing requirements for reading and math. I don’t buy it (though they might use such a posture as a bargaining chip). As Andy Smarick argued here in October, going back to intermittent or grade-span testing is tantamount to going back to the education stone age. Nobody thinks it’s a good idea to measure schools based on proficiency rates alone—examining student growth is much fairer, and much more likely to tell you which schools (especially high-poverty ones) are helping their pupils make progress in the curricular core, and which aren’t. Who in their right mind would willingly forfeit this ability?

Transparency of test scores. Everyone also likes to say that they agree with the “disaggregated data” of No Child Left Behind. So let’s not retreat on that. Slice and dice the achievement data in every way possible—and release it all.

Transparency of school spending. The federal government has had a long interest in ensuring that its funds go to providing extra services for schools serving poor kids; the problem is that state and local budgeting practices have long meant that poor schools in many places get less money to begin with. Folks on the left would love to use federal “comparability” requirements to right this ship, but that’s not politically feasible (or fiscally affordable) in this environment. Nor, in my view, is it the kind of change that can be sustained if mandated by Washington. But it would be reasonable to ask the states to make real school-level spending transparent to the taxpayers, taking real staff salaries into account (as we did for the Washington metro area). That would at least expose the inequities in funding that exist (as well as the inefficiencies in way too many places).

School ratings—as designed by the states. This is where the administration and its allies in the civil rights groups are going to have to compromise if they want a bill. (I’m not certain that they do.) Don’t expect a Republican Congress to pass anything stronger than a requirement that states rate their schools, and take into consideration the performance of disadvantaged subgroups within those ratings. Let the states figure out exactly how to do that—and let’s be humble enough not to pretend that we know the one best way. No federal reviews or approvals. Just transparency. Plenty of non-government organizations will rate the ratings and the metrics that underlie them.

Everything else will be left on the cutting room floor—specific requirements about interventions in failing schools; mandates around teacher evaluations or “highly qualified teachers”; competitive grant programs a la Race to the Top. This new ESEA will be lean and mean.

I could picture such a bill passing both chambers of Congress, probably with a fair number of Democrats voting aye. And if the president wants to disentangle the education reform movement from today’s vitriolic debates over the federal role, he would be smart to sign it.

Will that actually happen? Who knows? But it sure would be a great way to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of the ESEA.

-Mike Petrilli

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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