Want to see ESEA Updated in 2011? Try this Approach

With the votes finally counted almost everywhere, the fancies of education policy wonks turn to ESEA/NCLB, long overdue for reauthorization—and the subject of many aches, pains, and kvetches. Will the new Congress finally tackle this problem in 2011? Can it work with the Administration? For that matter, can it work with itself? The President murmurs about bipartisanship in education. A few Congressional leaders have been meeting. But what might a bipartisan compromise entail? And would it make for good policy? Would it be good for kids? Let us take a look.

Whether ESEA moves forward in the 112th Congress is primarily up to one man: future House speaker John Boehner, himself no slouch as an education-policy shaper. He and his team will need to make a strategic/political decision about cooperating with the White House—on anything. There are plenty of reasons they may opt not to: Why give Obama any “wins” to run on in 2012, goes the thinking. But we’re not so sure. A “do-nothing” Congress is no formula for winning votes, either, and does anyone really believe that a national election will hinge on whether an education bill gets passed? We’re cautiously hopeful that Speaker Boehner will view ESEA reauthorization as a low-risk yet important undertaking, conceivably even a win-win. While it could be portrayed as an Obama victory, it might give his members something to show their constituents, too—at least if done right.

If the elephants and donkeys do choose to sit down at the same table, we believe they must keep two goals firmly in mind. If either gets badly violated, this project cannot have a good ending:

1.      Reauthorization should tangibly send power back to states and local school districts. Both the President and members of Congress need to be able to make the case that they have fulfilled campaign promises to correct No Child Left Behind’s regulatory excesses.

2.      At the same time, it should maintain Uncle Sam’s pressure for serious school reform and not signal to recalcitrant districts or failing schools (or education interest groups) that we’re returning to business as usual or turning blind eyes back to mediocre performance and yawning achievement gaps.

In other words, the next ESEA should be reform-minded yet realistic about Washington’s capacity to change schools (and honest about the tendency of over-ambitious federal statutes to create a host of unintended consequences). Two years ago, we deemed this approach “Reform Realism,” and we still think it offers the best hope for threading the needle between federal overreach and federal inaction. (We also think it’s the most politically viable option on the table.)

In our dreams, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) go into a room with Secretary Arne Duncan and Representatives John Kline (R-MN) and George Miller (D-CA) and don’t come out until they’ve crafted a package based on these key elements:

1.      Embrace the Administration blueprint’s call to abandon federal oversight of accountability for the vast majority of American schools. Kill AYP. Abolish the “cascade of sanctions.” Hand the ball back to states to design accountability systems for their schools.

2.      At the same time, insist on greater transparency of school results, pegged to high standards and rigorous assessments. Legislators should tread cautiously here, careful not to rock the Common Core boat. An organic process is underway that, if done right and unimpeded, will end with better tests tied to more rigorous standards. Congress should not derail this process. But it shouldn’t be bashful about asking states to publish student achievement data online, in an accessible manner, and spotlighting the schools that lag behind. (It would be reasonable to insist that every state seeking Title I dollars deploy standards, tests, and proficiency definitions that can be benchmarked to and compared with NAEP and thus with each other—and with many other countries.)

3.      Choose incentives over mandates. Rather than requiring states to develop prescriptive teacher evaluation systems, for example, create a competitive grant program (similar to the Teacher Incentive Fund) that rewards those that are keen to push this envelope. Instead of mandating a uniform approach to school turnarounds, convert the School Improvement Grants program into a competition and support states that take this effort seriously. And for Pete’s sake, scrap the “highly qualified teachers” abomination.

4.      Consolidate federal dollars into flexible funding streams. Re-allocate money from categorical programs into the Title I formula. (At minimum, loosen NCLB’s “transferability” provision so states and districts can move all their ESEA funds into the Title I pot, without restrictions.) This is the best way to get dollars to the classroom with the fewest strings attached, and might cut down on administrative costs, too. This is the best thing Washington can do to help cash-strapped states and districts, particularly at a time when we don’t expect any more federal bailouts.

5.      Experiment with state performance contracts. Borrow a page from Senator Alexander’s 2007 proposal, or Senator Jim DeMint’s A-Plus bill, and allow states to negotiate broad waivers with the Secretary of Education to do things very differently. The money should still flow via the Title I formula (so dollars reach needy students) but states should be encouraged to identify federal rules and regulations that get in their way.

Those five points hardly encompass a comprehensive overhaul of ESEA. But that’s no bad thing. As Lamar Alexander has argued, a step-by-step approach might be the smartest—and most doable. A bill built around these core elements would move a long way toward our key goals. It would be both modest about the federal role and reform-minded in its orientation. This would, indeed, represent a departure from NCLB’s “Washington knows best” approach.

There’s little doubt that legislators and educators alike would cheer if AYP, “highly qualified teachers,” pre-determined “turnaround” strategies, and public school choice were consigned to history’s dustbin. None has worked as intended. At the same time, real transparency around school results—and common gauges by which to compare them—would maintain healthy pressure on schools, districts and states, and the competitive-grant programs would sustain the momentum for change.

School reform has come a long way in the ten years since presidential candidate George W. Bush began to talk of leaving no child behind. Change-oriented ideas and policies are entrenched at the state level in a way that would have been unimaginable in 2000. We believe that the benefits of a lighter federal footprint outweigh the risks—that it will allow states to be more nimble and quick, rather than encourage them to run backwards again. How about giving it a try?

-Mike Petrilli

Note: This editorial, by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and myself, appears in today’s Education Gadfly.

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