On October 11, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) Committee, released draft legislation to revise the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The legislation reflects ten months of bipartisan negotiations between Harkin and Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), top Republican on the HELP Committee.
“This opportunity is the result of more than two years of hearings, debate, and negotiations,” said Harkin. “Through this bipartisan effort, we have produced legislation that represents an important step forward for our children, our schools, and our nation. … This compromise demonstrates that Congressional Democrats and Republicans can overcome partisan differences in the interest of progress, and I look forward to support from my Committee colleagues on both sides of the aisle as we build on this foundation.”
“More than a year ago, members on both sides of the aisle agreed on the nine biggest problems with No Child Left Behind that needed to be fixed—and we set out to find solutions,” Enzi said. “This is not a perfect bill, nor does it solve every education issue. But it will make a huge, positive difference to our nation’s young people.”
In a letter to Enzi and Harkin, Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, noted that the 860-page draft bill is “particularly important for the nation’s high schools,” which, Wise said, are an “afterthought” in NCLB. He noted that NCLB does not require an accurate calculation of graduation rates and provides few resources for low-income high schools. Specifically, Wise pointed out that only 10 percent of Title I funding goes to high schools, although high schools educate nearly one-quarter of the low-income students that Title I is targeted to help.
The draft legislation would address these issues by establishing a common, accurate definition of graduation rates and would concentrate improvement efforts on high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent. Additionally, the draft legislation would support comprehensive efforts by states to improve the reading and writing skills of all students, including middle and high school students. It also would support the effort underway in nearly every state to raise standards and ensure that students graduate from high school ready for college and a career. The legislation would largely keep NCLB’s testing system in place, including the requirement that states report information on specific subgroups of students (low-income students, English language learners, students in special education, students of color, etc.), but it would eliminate the 2013–14 deadline for 100 percent proficiency in reading and math.
In addition to its proposed changes for high schools, the draft legislation is drawing a lot of attention for its elimination of the Adequate Yearly Progress requirements found in NCLB. Instead, states would have to ensure that all students are making “continuous improvement.” The draft legislation would require states to identify the elementary, middle, and high schools in the bottom 5 percent of performance—including high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent—and implement one of six turnaround strategies in those schools.
The provision has received criticism from organizations representing students with disabilities, low-income students, and students of color, including the National Council of La Raza, the Education Trust, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities. These organizations are calling for “meaningful” student improvement instead of the “continuous” improvement the draft legislation would require.
“States would not have to set measurable achievement and progress targets or even graduation rate goals,” the organizations wrote in a letterto Harkin and Enzi. “The loss of goals and progress targets would dismantle the positive aspects of NCLB’s accountability system and be a significant step backward that we can ill afford to take.”
In his letter to Harkin and Enzi, Wise called the focus on the lowest-performing schools, “logical—especially when resources are scarce,” but noted that nearly 200,000 students of color drop out of high schools with graduation rates above 60 percent. “Federal law should help to ensure that these students have the opportunity to attend high-quality schools as well,” he wrote.
Harkin 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 potential lightning rod in the draft legislation is its treatment of teacher evaluations. In its current form, the legislation would require states to create teacher evaluation systems with input from educators. According to Education Week’s “Politics K–12” blog , these systems would have four different categories for teacher evaluations and would have to be informed by student outcomes, as well as classroom observations. Evaluations would then be used for professional development, but they would not necessarily be used to determine hiring and firing.
The next step for the legislation is a HELP Committee markup on Wednesday, October 19 at 10:00 a.m., EST. During the markup, HELP Committee members will consider amendments to the draft legislation. Whether the product that emerges from the HELP Committee will make it to the Senate floor for consideration is still up in the air, although Harkin hopes the bill will reach the Senate floor before Thanksgiving.
“I’m hopeful that if we can get a good bipartisan bill through [the HELP] committee and the [Senate] floor, then that will be instructive for the House,” Harkin said. “If the House takes a strictly partisan approach to this, well, then I guess we’re doomed.”
The complete text of the draft legislation is available at http://help.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/ROM118313.pdf.