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SOUND AND FURY OR SIGNIFYING NOTHING?: Flurry of Congressional Activity on NCLB Rewrite As House Passes Charter Schools Bill, House Committee Holds Hearing, and Senate Republicans Introduce Legislation

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“We cannot continue to rely on a one-size-fits-all federal accountability system to gauge the performance of our schools and students.”

There was a flurry of activity on Capitol Hill last week around a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), but most observers continue to believe that a complete ESEA rewrite is unlikely until after the 2012 presidential election. Still, policymakers saw the September 13 passage of charter school legislation as an encouraging sign that Republicans and Democrats could work together on education reform.

House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) said that the strong bipartisan support of the Empowering Parents Through Quality Charter Schools Act, which passed by a vote of 365–54, was an “important first step in our efforts to improve current elementary and secondary education law” and “signals our shared commitment to the reform process.”

Representative George Miller (D-CA), top Democrat on the committee, also called the bill an “important step forward,” while stressing the need for a “comprehensive reauthorization that provides the relief our schools and our students desperately need.” (More information on the Empowering Parents Through Quality Charter Schools Act is available at https://all4ed.org/publication_material/straight_as/06272011#2.)

Signs of bipartisan agreement continued the following day when the House Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing examining NCLB’s accountability system. During the hearing “Education Reforms: Examining the Federal Role in Public School Accountability,” Republicans and Democrats seemed to agree on the need for a federal accountability system that is less prescriptive and provides greater local flexibility. Members from both parties also stressed the need for college and career readiness and continued transparency around the performance of various student subgroups, including students of color and low-income students.

“Under NCLB’s accountability system, known as Adequate Yearly Progress, all schools that fail to meet target proficiency levels for two or more consecutive years are required to undergo the same series of prescriptive federal interventions, regardless of the unique circumstances or challenges facing each school,” Kline said. “We cannot continue to rely on a one-size-fits-all federal accountability system to gauge the performance of our schools and students.”

Miller discussed the need for “guardrails” that can ensure quality and provide support. “These guardrails must include college- and career-ready standards, goals to ensure those standards are met, and aggressive but achievable annual performance targets so that states, districts, and schools know what is expected of them and continue to move all students forward,” Miller said. “We need to take the next steps: balance the accountability we worked so hard to implement in NCLB with greater flexibility at the local level and less prescription at the federal level.”

Hearing witnesses were Hanna Skandera, secretary-designate, New Mexico Public Education Department; Blaine Hawley, principal, Red Pump Elementary School in Bel Air, Maryland; Alberto Carvalho, superintendent, Miami-Dade Public Schools; and Amy Sichel, superintendent, Abington, Pennsylvania Public Schools. Video from the hearing is available at http://edworkforce.house.gov/Calendar/EventSingle.aspx?EventID=258185.

Work on NCLB’s accountability system will continue on September 21, when the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education will hold an additional hearing on the subject entitled “Education Reforms: Ensuring the Education System Is Accountable to Parents and Communities.” The hearing will be webcast live athttp://edworkforce.house.gov/Calendar/EventSingle.aspx?EventID=259929.

While the House has chosen to work on separate education bills over comprehensive legislation to reauthorize ESEA, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) and HELP Committee Ranking Member Mike Enzi (R-WY)have been working behind closed doors on a bipartisan basis to develop a comprehensive bill.

Meanwhile, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN)Richard Burr (R-NC), Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Mark Kirk (R-IL)—all of whom serve on the HELP Committee—introduced a series of four education bills that they said would “fix” NCLB. The bills appear to mirror the individual bills that have—or soon will be—introduced in the House. Introduced on September 14, the bills focus on improving state accountability systems; improving teacher and principal professional development programs; consolidating federal education programs; and expanding the number of charter schools.

Alexander told Education Week’s “Politics K–12” blog that the bills were not a sign that he and his fellow senators did not want to continue to work with Harkin and Enzi on reauthorization. “We’re moving ahead on two tracks,” Alexander said. He said the bills provided a chance for Republicans to “spur the process and outline their own vision for renewing the law.”

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