The Tennessean: Alexander bill: States — not feds — would hold schools accountable

Posted on April 7, 2015

WASHINGTON — The federal government would no longer label public schools successful or failing based on student test scores under bipartisan legislation introduced Tuesday by two key senators.

The long-awaited rewrite of the federal K-12 education law is a compromise crafted by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

It would replace the 2001 No Child Left Behind federal education law, which expired in 2007. The law had grown increasingly unpopular because of its reliance on high-stakes standardized testing and the strong role played by the federal government.

Alexander and Murray scheduled a vote on their bill for April 14 in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

"Basically, our agreement continues important measurements of the academic progress of students but restores to states, local school districts, teachers and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about improving student achievement," said Alexander, the committee's chairman. "This should produce fewer and more appropriate tests. It is the most effective way to advance higher standards and better teaching in our 100,000 public schools."

Murray, the committee's top Democrat, said the proposal would improve state and local control over how schools are assessed without totally eliminating Washington's role in education.

"While there is still work to be done, this agreement is a strong step in the right direction that helps students, educators and schools, gives states and districts more flexibility while maintaining strong federal guardrails, and helps make sure all students get the opportunity to learn, no matter where they live, how they learn or how much money their parents make," Murray said.

The bipartisan agreement offers a contrast to a House education bill written by Republicans. Democrats and the White House oppose that bill partly because it would allow federal dollars to be redirected away from poorer school districts.

The Alexander-Murray bill does not include that provision, but Alexander originally supported letting Title I money follow students to the school of their choice, so it could be offered later as an amendment.

The Senate compromise bill does contain other elements geared toward school choice, such as new competitive grants for charter schools and incentives for states to authorize more charter schools.

The compromise would maintain the current regimen of reading, math and science tests between grades 3 and 12, but it would let states decide how to use those test scores for accountability purposes.

School districts identified by their states as under-performing would be eligible for federal grants to make improvements, but the federal government would not prescribe which reforms are necessary, according to the bill.

Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary, was adamant about preventing the federal government from setting national academic standards. The legislation would not let education officials make federal money contingent on states' acceptance of certain standards, including Common Core.

The proposal also reflects Murray's priorities in maintaining the practice of dis-aggregating student test score data. That's designed to make sure minorities, low-income students, English learners and students with disabilities are keeping pace.

The White House called the Alexander-Murray bill an important step, but stopped short of fully endorsing the plan.

"We believe that any bill should ensure that teachers and parents know how their schools are doing every year, reject harmful proposals that would let states take away funding from schools that need it most, and make sure we remain committed to closing troubling achievement and opportunity gaps in America's schools and driving progress in those that are the lowest-performing," according to a statement from White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

The American Federation of Teachers said the bill would restore the original intent of the federal K-12 law — to mitigate the effects of poverty and address inequities.

"It moves away from the increasingly counterproductive focus on sanctions, high-stakes tests, federalized teacher evaluations and school closings," said AFT President Randi Weingarten. "And it will help return the joy of teaching and learning that's been missing as a result of testing and test-prep fixation in too many classrooms."

The National Education Association said it's still reviewing the 600-page bill for evidence of how it would promote education excellence for all students, regardless of ZIP code.

"We are also looking for concrete steps that remedy opportunity gaps for students and fix the broken 'test, label and punish' regime instituted under No Child Left Behind," said NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. "We want to see a bill that goes a long way to empower educators — as trusted professionals — to make classroom and school decisions to ensure student success."