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Tomorrow morning, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will markup the Strengthening America’s Schools Act, the latest ESEA reauthorization proposal from Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA). Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch have already recapped many of the changes proposed to accountability for schools and educators, as well as Title I and early learning programs. But we have yet to weigh in on the alternative proposal offered by the Committee’s Republican members, led by Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN).

Here are the three biggest differences between the two bills:

1. No love for Common Core. Alexander’s bill – the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act – includes detailed language to explicitly prohibit the U.S. Department of Education from exercising any direction, preference, or control over state’s academic content standards (like the Common Core State Standards) or achievement standards (i.e. cut scores that determine what it means to be college- and career-ready). This also has big implications for education data and reporting – more on that below.

Clearly concerned with federal overreach, this level of specificity around the Department’s role should appeal to critics of the common standards, claiming they are step one toward a “federal curriculum” or “national school board.” But Alexander is silent on a specific timeline or transition to college- and career-ready standards and tests – another increasingly divisive issue. Harkin’s bill would allow states a one-year “pause,” requiring implementation by the 2015-16 school year, even though both Common Core consortia say they will deliver their assessments on-time in 2014-15.

2. A mini-backpack for Title I funds. Another sharp contrast with the Harkin proposal: states could allocate Title I funds to districts based only on their number of eligible children – and federal funding could then follow the child to any public school in the district. Similar to a Romney campaign proposal (but on a smaller scale, without the option to use Title I funds to attend out-of-district public schools or private schools, or to pay for tutoring), it is unclear how many states would take advantage of this provision. How would it work in districts that lack other public school options – in particular, rural districts or districts where the overwhelming majority of schools are low-performing? Funding fights are always messy – how would school and district administrators respond to the change? The Alexander bill would also eliminate maintenance of effort requirements, meaning that states and districts would not be penalized for spending less on education from year to year, another potential sore spot for local school leaders.

3. States: choose your own accountability adventure. Unlike the Democrats’ bill, Every Child Ready for College or a Career would not require performance targets for schools. As Politics K-12 predicted, this was a major partisan sticking point between Harkin and Alexander. And transparency – rather than accountability – is the key policy lever in the Republican proposal. States can choose to differentiate between schools as they see fit.

Further, the Senate Republican proposal would prohibit the Department from specifying, defining, or prescribing any measure that states include in their accountability systems. Presumably, this means states could choose how they want to define everything from adequate student growth, to a cut score for college and career readiness, to how they define graduation rates. Would this undermine data comparability between states, including efforts to report a uniform graduation rate?

Alexander’s bill also doesn’t require states to identify any set percentage of Title I schools for improvement, leaving both identification and intervention entirely up to states (with the exception that students be allowed to transfer if their schools are identified). Given states’ history with setting rigorous goals and expectations for schools (as this new Education Sector report reminds us), Alexander’s bill would effectively set federal education policy back twenty years – to the 1994 Improving America’s Schools Act.

Finally, Alexander’s bill would not require states to develop teacher or principal evaluation systems, but they could use Title II funds for these purposes. And unlike Harkin’s proposal, states could partner with for-profits, as well as nonprofit organizations or higher education institutions, to implement their plans for preparing, training and improving the quality of teachers and school leaders. Because the bill also eliminates the “highly qualified teacher” provision, states would not have to report, whether teachers are distributed equitably between Title I and non-Title I schools – another blow for accountability and a big difference between the Alexander and Harkin proposals.

The bottom line? Alexander’s bill doesn’t actually require states to do anything. And that’s a problem. As Chad Aldeman also notes in his smart take on the Alexander bill, Every Child College or Career Ready relies on assurances from states that they will implement rigorous and high-quality standards, assessments, and accountability systems. As Aldeman writes: “There are no serious standards for these things and, even if there were, there would be no way to verify state assertions.” If a plan is a poor substitute for policy, then an assurance as policymaking is downright laughable.

To help keep both draft bills – along with No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s waiver policy – straight, download this side-by-side cheat sheet to use during the markup. You can click also click on the image below to enlarge it. And of course, the always-helpful Politics K12 team has another side-by-side comparison that features the House Republican plan

Comparing ESEA Reauthorization Proposals

Follow along with us tomorrow, and stay tuned to Ed Money Watch for continuing coverage.

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