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Back to November Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 310 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS NOVEMBER 2011

Senate NCLB Changes Weaken Accountability
On October 20th, U.S. Senators on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee passed a bill to reauthorize and reform the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which is the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Tom Harkin, the Democratic chairman of HELP, and Michael B. Enzi, the top ranking Republican on the committee, sponsored the bill, which passed by a 15-7 margin. The Harkin-Enzi bill, which would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act for the ninth time since 1965, is the first piece of legislation to pass in committee that attempts to correct the long standing problems with NCLB.

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The bill did not get off to a good start though. It was released by Harkin and Enzi to fellow committee members late Thursday night with markup set for the following Wednesday. That timeframe left senators on the HELP committee little time to study the 1,000-page bill.

Senator Rand Paul, a member of the committee, commented on the short notice of the bill, "We have not had enough time to allow the teachers, superintendents, and principals in our states who specialize in educating our children to review this legislation. We have not had time to thoroughly read and review this bill to determine whether it will actually help our children, or whether it will, in fact, make matters worse."

The Harkin-Enzi bill is, in part, a response to the Obama Administration's NCLB waiver plan, which was released in September. If the bill is passed, NCLB waivers will be unnecessary. The bill would give relief from key NCLB provisions to all states instead of giving them only to states that qualify, as the waiver plan does.

One of the main provisions of the Harkin-Enzi bill eliminates Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), a foundational piece of NCLB accountability that teachers have protested for years. AYP would be replaced with an undefined requirement of "continuous improvement" in student results.

While the bill does not technically require states to join the Common Core State Standards Initiative, it does require schools to adopt "college-and-career-ready" standards in order to receive Title I funds. Since no other set of standards is guaranteed to be approved as "college-and-career-ready," adopting Common Core is the implicit prerequisite for receiving Title I funding. Though marketed as a state-led initiative, in reality Common Core standards give the federal government de facto control of the content taught in state schools.

Other federal accountability provisions of NCLB would be replaced with less restrictive policies. States would determine how schools are doing and control 95% of them while the federal government would only be able to intervene in the lowest scoring 5% of schools. The bill would, however, still require states to test all students in reading and math in the third to eighth grades every year and once in high school.

The Harkin-Enzi bill is being hailed as bipartisan, but there are members on both sides of the aisle who disapprove. While Republicans criticize the bill as still giving the federal government too much power, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote on the Department of Education's website that it is "important that we maintain a strong commitment to accountability for the success of all students, and I am concerned that the Senate bill does not go far enough."

Although the bill gives some power back to states, it adds many programs and grants to aid schools in teaching financial literacy, foreign languages, environmental education, and technology. Some of these programs are reinstatements of programs that lost funding in recent budget debates. These expensive programs may generate opposition from Senate Republicans who are looking for ways to cut the 2012 budget.

Democrats, on the other hand, fear that too much power is being handed back over to the states. They assert that the Department of Education should retain enough control to ensure accountability for schools.

Civil rights and business groups, who oppose the bill as being too hands-off, believe that the lack of federal accountability will leave disabled and minority students behind. On the other hand, school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers, and the National Education Association, are hopeful that some of the strict standards of NCLB will be relaxed.

The bill has been sent to the full Senate for consideration. Proponents hope Congress will pass the bill before Christmas. (Education Week, 10-26-11 and 11-2-11; New York Times, 10-22-11; www.blog.heritage.org, 10-25-11)
 
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