Competing Education Bills Emphasize State Flexibility
Over the past week, three separate bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and replace some of the more infamous provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, commonly called NCLB. While the three measures differ substantially in their vision for the role of the federal government in education policy, they all include proposals to substitute state flexibility in place of some of the more draconian elements of NCLB.
All three bills would replace a deeply unpopular aspect of No Child Left Behind, the Adequate Yearly Progress requirement. Under that provision, schools were required to meet specific targets toward reaching an unrealistic goal of having 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Under NCLB, schools that failed to meet their progress targets were subject to an escalating set of punitive measures that were widely seen to be both unfair and unrealistic.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., introduced a bill that would limit the role of the federal government by ceding decisions about how to measure student achievement and school performance to the states. Alexander, a former U.S. secretary of education, also would replace 62 separate funding streams for education programs with two block grants that states would have wide discretion to use to meet their own goals and priorities. House Education Committee Chair John Kline, R-Minn., is championing a similar bill that allows states to design their own academic standards, methods for evaluating progress and strategies for intervening in underperforming schools.
Both Republican proposals are informed in part by the Obama administration’s success in influencing state education policy both through the incentives contained in the Race to the Top grant competition and through the carrots available through the NCLB waiver process.
Senate Democrats have responded with their own proposal, sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, which would maintain a strong role for the federal government in measuring student performance by retaining standardized tests for math and science. The bill would allow states wide discretion to include other measures in assessing overall student performance and provide flexibility for states to design their own approaches to assisting underperforming schools. Harkin’s bill also would continue the Race to the Top grant program as a mechanism for catalyzing state-based reforms.
While both parties are far apart at this stage, all three bills have clearly been informed by the advocacy of The Council of State Governments, the National Governors Association and other state organizations that have worked over the past two years to highlight the importance of replacing NCLB with a new approach to education that gives state leaders the flexibility they need to innovate.