Congressional Quarterly: Advocates Optimistic for No Child Left Behind Rewrite

Posted on November 7, 2014

Although the efforts to reauthorize No Child Left Behind often feel like Groundhog Day, advocates are optimistic that a constellation of changes in Hill leadership and a shift in the public mood will make this Congress the one where a rewrite is finally complete.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the incoming chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has pledged to make a reauthorization one of his first priorities for the 114th, advocates said.

The rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (PL 110-107) is “very much a priority” for Alexander, said Noelle Ellerson, associate director of policy and advocacy with AASA, the school superintendents’ group.

Alexander, a former education secretary, governor and university president, “has made it clear he wants to move ESEA first,” said Mary Kusler, government relations director at the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union.

The committee will, of course, be the setting for changes to the health care law (PL 110-148, PL 110-152), and Alexander has pledged to push a bill to reign in the National Labor Relations Board, but a No Child rewrite is likely to be among the first topics the panel considers.

The bill Alexander introduced in June 2013 as a counterpoint to Democratic reauthorization written by outgoing HELP Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is likely to be a starting point for discussions.

Alexander’s bill (S 1101) would allow states to design their own accountability systems and permit them to identify the poorest performing schools and have districts create strategies to better those schools.

Alexander also proposed block granting most federal education spending to states into two pools of money and would modify the formula for distribution of Title I funds for low-income students, allowing the funds to follow individual students as they transfer among schools. Those changes are likely to be nonstarters with Democrats.

He also proposed allowing — but not requiring, as Harkin proposed — states to tap teacher development funds to create teacher and principal evaluation systems, saying at the time that although test score-linked evaluations were ideal, it wasn’t the place of the federal government to mandate that for states.

Alexander said in a statement released Wednesday that Senate Republicans would work to "return control over our public schools to communities and classroom teachers."

Advocates said that although the 2013 bill will be a starting point for negotiations, Alexander will work with probable HELP Democratic leader Patty Murray, D-Wash.

“It’s perceived that he feels there’s a middle ground to be had on ESEA reauthorization and that we need to make a run at it,” Kusler said.

The HELP panel as an institution, and Alexander and Murray as individuals, have a history of making deals.

The committee has pushed 11 bills to a presidential signature this Congress.

Most were relatively small reauthorizations, but Alexander and Harkin worked with their House counterparts to push through a reauthorization of federal jobs training programs (PL 113-128) this summer. A reauthorization of federal child-care block grant programs (S 1086) is likely to become law in the coming weeks following a procedural vote.

Murray, though perhaps best known for her work in brokering a budget deal in late 2013 with House Republican Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan, was instrumental in working out the deal on the jobs training measure.

Agreement on Testing, Flexibility

Although some past rewrite drafts have reduced the federal testing mandate — currently once a year for grades 3 through 8, and once again in grades 10 through 12, in reading and math — there will be an even greater push to reduce testing this time around.

Years of NCLB-mandated tests — piled on top of assessments required by states and localities — have left students, parents and teachers weary of over-testing and pushing for some relief.

Two groups of education leaders, the Council of Great City Schools and Chief State School Officers, have pledged to review the number of tests students take each year and remove redundant ones.

The Education Department this summer announced it would permit states to delay linking student test results with teacher and principal evaluations, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Barack Obamareleased statements supporting the organizations’ test review.

Kusler said she has felt a “seismic shift in the past six months on the assessment question.”

It has spread beyond parents of school age-children and teachers to the broader population, she said.

She also said she expected that general distaste for the waiver process the Education Department has used since 2012 would result in widespread agreement in giving states more flexibility.

“I think ultimately there is enough concern around the current state of play on waivers, the long overdue need for ESEA reauthorization, and Sen. Lamar Alexander’s drive as a former governor to restore some state flexibility back into ESEA,” she said.

In particular, Murray particularly may be open to increased state flexibility and autonomy, typically more of a Republican priority.

She is up for reelection in 2016 and her home state, Washington, is the only jurisdiction to have lost its NCLB waiver over a failure to link test scores to teacher evaluations, which begins a series of increasing penalties on schools that don’t measure up, starting with offering tutoring and culminating in a takeover of the school by the city or state.