On November 8, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing on a bill it recently passed to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The hearing was an unusual one because hearings typically happen before a committee passes legislation, but this one was part of a deal with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY)who believed the committee did not allow members enough time to read and discuss the bill before voting to approve it during an October 20 markup.
In his opening statement, HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) seemed to address Paul’s objection by noting that the committee had held ten hearings on a “full range of issues” covered under NCLB. Harkin also said that he had held “numerous” stakeholder meetings and participated in “lengthy” negotiations with Republicans on the bill.
Harkin said the bipartisan bill that the committee passed “takes several important steps forward” but added that he is “sure there is more that can be done.” Specifically, Harkin noted that the bill provides a “laser-like” focus on turning around the bottom 5 percent of schools and the nation’s “dropout factories,” which are high schools that graduate less than 60 percent of their students. He said the bill would close the “comparability loophole” and help ensure that Title I schools get their fair share of federal resources while resetting the national goal from students attaining “proficiency” to ensuring that students graduate from high school prepared for college and a career.
“I know for certain [that] current law is not bringing about the significant improvements in student achievement that our country needs and our children deserve,” Harkin said. “We must reauthorize to get out from under the stifling and ineffective No Child Left Behind Act.”
Senator Mike Enzi, top Republican on the HELP Committee, also devoted a portion of his opening remarks to highlight the preparation that went into the bill. He said the committee had heard testimony from over seventy witnesses and received input from people across the country who submitted additional views and solutions through the committee’s website.
Enzi called the committee’s markup of the bill last month a “major step forward” in the process to rewrite NCLB but said he expected “many more changes” to the bill. While recognizing that NCLB has its faults, Enzi also highlighted several positive aspects of the current law, including its role in providing greater transparency of student outcomes and shining a light on the performance of individual students as well as the schools they attend.
However, Enzi said that NCLB also “placed strict one-size-fits-all rules” on how states and school districts address deficiencies within schools. He praised the bill the committee passed last month for removing “most of those federal mandates” and asking states to “intervene only in their bottom 5 percent of schools and those schools with the largest achievement gaps.”
The “5 percent provision” to which Enzi refers has drawn significant criticism from business organizations as well as those representing students with disabilities, low-income students, and students of color. In response, Enzi said that having the goal of students graduating college and career ready requires “intensive, step-by-step, grade-by-grade planning, not some marker as to whether the student’s prepared on the day they graduate.” To meet this goal, Enzi said states will need to design “rubrics” that get their students on this path and do not need “unnecessary federal micromanagement” that says how and when students should reach each progressive milestone.
In his opening remarks, Enzi acknowledged that Harkin would have supported “far greater federally designed accountability.” Indeed, Harkin has said that he wanted to keep achievement targets in the bill but dropped them in an effort to keep the bill bipartisan and draw support from Senate Republicans.
Another person who prefers keeping the accountability targets in place is U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In an interview withEducation Week, Duncan said he was “encouraged” about the process to rewrite NCLB, but said it “can’t just be about the process, it has to be about the product,” adding, “you don’t want to have a weak bill or a bad bill at the end of the day.” Duncan said that the bill might take a “step back on raising standards and accountability. We’ve seen so much progress, we’ve got to keep getting better, not going backwards.”
During a November 10 speech on the Senate floor, Harkin seemed to indicate that the Senate would not move further on the committee-passed bill until the House of Representatives passes its version of a bill. Thus far, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce has passed three pieces of legislation to rewrite different portions of NCLB, but has yet to address some of the most significant issues within education policy, including accountability and teacher effectiveness.
“Without a bipartisan bill coming out of the House, I believe it would be difficult to find a path forward that will draw the support we need from both sides of the aisle to be able to send a final bill to the President that advances education for America’s students,” Harkin said. “Here in the Senate we have demonstrated that it is possible to reach bipartisan consensus despite the thorny issues in education. We all need to work together in a bipartisan way to replace the No Child Left Behind Act with a new and better law.
Video of the November 8 hearing is available at http://1.usa.gov/syAofX.