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If Congress Agrees the Era of Big Government is Over, Why Can’t We Get an ESEA Deal?

Published:  July 2, 2013

UPDATED 7/22: The side-by-side comparison of each proposal now reflects the final version of the Student Success Act, as amended during floor debate on July 18 and 19. For full coverage of the House debate and vote, read the Storify here.

Considering Congress hasn’t figured out how to compromise on student loan interest rates (despite the fact that President Obama and a bipartisan group of Senators proposed shockingly similar plans), it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) remains at a standstill. Sure, the Senate and House of Representatives marked up proposed legislation and moved it out of their respective education committees. But everyone – including Congress itself – knows these bills aren’t going anywhere. How else can you explain a Senate markup so sparsely attended that Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) threatened his fellow members’ subcommittee leadership? Or a House markup so speedy that you missed it if you took a long lunch?

Part of the problem is that there is absolutely no pressure to get a rewrite of ESEA (a.k.a. No Child Left Behind) done, and these days Congress needs a cliff or a crisis (or a rapidly expanding minority population to win over) in order to accomplish anything. The deadline built into NCLB – that 100 percent of students in every Title I school be proficient in reading and math by 2014 or face sanctions – won’t hit until next summer. But the U.S. Department of Education has already leveled this “proficiency cliff” by giving ESEA waivers to 39 states and Washington, D.C. (that number could balloon to 45 states and a handful of districts in California if all remaining requests are approved).

While states – via the National Governor’s Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and other groups – claim they want a reauthorization, surely they’d prefer to stick with waivers if a new ESEA meant additional federal requirements or any significant changes to their Department-approved plans. This makes reauthorization more difficult than ever. Waivers are complicated, involve dozens of policy choices for states, and vary tremendously. Bellwether’s Andy Rotherham put it best: “It’s hard to overstate how completely incoherent federal policy on K-12 schools now is. States are all over the place on timelines, approaches, and so forth with little rhyme or reason.” Accordingly, any ESEA reauthorization proposal that seeks to win over state education officials or build off of existing waiver policies has to envision such a weak federal role that states can pretty much do whatever they want.

And that’s exactly what we got… and not just from the usual suspects (i.e. congressional Republicans). Even the Democrats’ proposals envision an incredibly limited federal role in education. You can see for yourself by downloading our complete cheat sheet here. The central ESEA reauthorization question today isn’t “what is the appropriate federal role?” but rather “how weak a federal role can we live with?”

Take Senator Harkin’s proposal. Yes, states must adopt college- and career ready standards, test students annually in reading and math, establish an accountability system with performance targets, identify at least 15 percent of schools for improvement, and implement performance-based evaluation system for teachers and principals. But all of the details (with the exception of federal reporting, where the requirements are quite specific) are left up to states. Waivers can remain in effect, and for nearly every provision there’s an option to design and get approval for states’ preferred policy choices.

The Ranking Member on the House education committee, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), would give states slightly less leeway. For example, Miller’s proposal defines what adequate student growth means, gives states fewer choices in setting performance targets, and requires states to get approval for their academic standards from institutions of higher education unless they are common to several states. Still, Miller wouldn’t require states to intervene in a certain number or percentage of schools (just particular categories of schools), and it gives states flexibility to design their own accountability systems and teacher evaluations.

What’s incredible is that the Republican proposals cede even more authority to states – significantly curbing the Secretary of Education’s authority, eliminating (or consolidating, depending on your point of view) funding and programs like those for English language learners, and dismantling nearly every federal guideline for standards and accountability. Their plans also eschew many of the lessons learned from NCLB, including bipartisan, commonsense ideas like uniform graduation rates and using a balance of proficiency and growth for accountability. Is it intrusive to ask states to set some kind of school performance goals? Is it so burdensome for states to also take student growth into account? And is it really that unreasonable to expect states to report school data in a comparable way?

None of the ESEA reauthorization proposals are perfect. But if you actually read them – and I have – it seems like there should be more room to compromise. Everyone envisions a limited federal role! (To be clear, I’m not arguing that this is the best policy choice, only that it should make the politics easier.)

If Congress seriously wanted to make a deal, perhaps Republicans could get on board with a few more state requirements – performance targets or interventions in some number of schools, a measure of student growth, graduation rate accountability, and performance-based teacher evaluations that guide professional development – as long as states still had flexibility to make their own choices. Democrats could appease Republicans by streamlining reporting requirements, eliminating some of the required actions for schools in improvement, allowing teacher evaluations to be used only for professional development, or working on language to clarify the Secretary’s authority to grant waivers or encourage Common Core participation.

Yes, there would still be big differences to iron out (maintenance of effort, funding comparability, etc.), but the two parties aren’t nearly as far apart on policy as the political rhetoric might suggest. Unfortunately, with midterm elections fast approaching, lawmakers appear more concerned with scoring political points and toeing the party line than with the give and take of writing complicated policy. And waivers enable the administration to enact its preferred policies, at least temporarily, while simultaneously blaming Congress for inaction. In short, gridlock is a win-win. Despite two markups, four proposals, and thousands of pages of legislation, nobody in Washington benefits from making a deal. So get ready for those waiver renewals because ESEA isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.

 

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