Ten Things To Know About Secretary Duncan’s ESEA Reauthorization Speech

As I wrote earlier, with the ESEA reauthorization process heating up, lots of advocates are now trying to influence the congressional deliberations. Secretary Duncan weighed in this morning. Here are ten things you should know about his speech.

1. It was fifty years ago today. The initial frame of the speech harkens back to the original ESEA (1965) and its raison d’être. Duncan even cited Robert F. Kennedy. This is a civil-rights issue for the secretary; indeed, he repeatedly used words like “equity,” “fairness,” and “justice” in his speech. But to many, LBJ’s Great Society is also synonymous with the excesses of federal activity; it is the voracious, technocratic, disconnected, wasteful, ineffective, inside-the-Beltway bureaucracy. Conjuring up this era will motivate many…but not in the same way.

2. Civil rights legislation? Given this framing and the news of Duncan’s having been deeply affected by the Garner and Brown cases, I was prepared for the secretary to be explicit that ESEA is civil rights—not just education—legislation aimed at righting longstanding racial wrongs. I also wondered if he would suggest that a vote against strong K–12 federal accountability would be in the same vein as opposing rights-expanding legislation of the 1960s. But he was mostly delicate in this area. He did, however, use President George W. Bush’s famous NCLB line against opponents of federal accountability. Duncan juxtaposed his own position (encapsulated, in his view, by a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. line) with the “soft bigotry” of low expectations that he associates with the delegation of most K–12 authority to states.

3. Uncle Sam digs in. To the extent the speech laid out policy positions, or at least bright lines, it did so through a series of “I believe” statements and a device that differentiated between an active federal government and deference to states (i.e., making things “optional’). In all of these cases, Duncan implies that he’s for a continued robust role for the federal government. He was very clear that he still favors annual statewide assessments in reading and math (3–8 and high school). He also, unexpectedly, made the case for the continuation of the Race to the Top approach of federal incentives for state-level reforms (presumably via competitive grant programs).

4. Love/hate relationship with NCLB. Maybe the most striking element of the speech was Duncan’s cognitive dissonance about NCLB. Interestingly, rather than just talking about academic gains made under the Obama administration, he explicitly calls for “celebrating” “fifteen years” of improvements and not “turning back the clock.” He cites important data demonstrating the improved performance of America’s students, especially historically underperforming groups. So he heralds the important gains made under NCLB’s watch, but then calls the law “tired” and “prescriptive” and says we must “dispense” with it. He didn’t use the word “repeal,” like previous reporting suggested he would. But there was an obvious disconnect between the positions he staked out and the data he referenced on the one hand and his critiques of NCLB on the other. All of this makes me wonder when we’ll hear from President Bush and/or Secretary Spellings.

5. Optional bad, flexibility good? This NCLB tension can’t be ignored because it has big implications for important policy questions. Duncan provided a laundry list of things the federal government ought to still do and denigrated the idea of making these “optional” for states. But later he emphasizes the importance of giving “states more flexibility.” Squaring this circle would be difficult in the best of circumstances, but the department’s early narrative about “tight on ends, loose on means” has been belied by its actual work (e.g., waiver requirements, OCR). So I’m not at all clear on which parts of ESEA now fall into the secretary’s “that can’t be optional” bucket and which into the “states need flexibility” bucket.

6. The GOP and accountability. Duncan shrewdly called out Republicans for essentially giving up on federal accountability. He noted that the GOP generally wants programs to drive toward results and opposes big federal programs that simply hand out money without requiring measurable proof of improved performance. His implied question was, “Why do you now want to send tens of billions of federal funds to states without meaningful accountability provisions?”

7. Not a partisan issue. Duncan expressed concern about where a “Republican-only” reauthorization bill would lead. This missed the mark. The kind of bill being discussed on Capitol Hill right now (e.g., no or fewer tests, no federal performance requirements) would likely get support from union-friendly Democrats in addition to Republicans. The fight over federal accountability is not a partisan one. Moreover, if the secretary were truly concerned about making this a bipartisan effort, he might’ve insured that some Republican members of Congress were in attendance…instead of just eight Democrats.

8. More money for federal tests? Duncan said the upcoming budget would request more money for state tests (to help improve and streamline assessment regimes). Let’s just call the chances of that occurring “a low-probability event.” Congress spent $350 million on PARCC/SBAC, which fewer and fewer states are using. It is extraordinarily unlikely this Congress will pony up more money for tests any time soon.

9. Early learning. The “ES” in ESEA stands for “elementary and secondary,” meaning this has long been viewed as K–12 legislation. If Duncan had his way, it would probably be renamed “PESEA.” The secretary wants early childhood (and the speech suggested universal early childhood) to be part of the law. The speech also called for more funding, including a substantial increase in Title I dollars.

10. One of many voices. It’s pretty clear that the coming reauthorization debate is going to focus on accountability. But in addition to early childhood and more funding, Duncan also talked about educator evaluation, teacher preparation and support, and more. Lots of other groups are joining the advocacy chorus, including business groups, the unions, and civil rights organizations. Though school-choice organizations have been quiet so far, it’s hard to imagine that’ll last long since the GOP controls Congress. So while the secretary’s speech helped clarify the contours of the accountability discussion, it was neither dispositive on that matter nor exhaustive when it comes to all of the issues that’ll be in the mix.

– Andy Smarick

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

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