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Keep the Train Running on ESEA Reauthorization

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February 02, 2011 07:31 pm


In this time of divided government and a highly partisan environment, the temptation is certainly there to try to pass small fixes to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) instead of taking up a comprehensive bill. And while a piecemeal approach might be easier in the short run, it will almost certainly complicate matters in the long run.

First, there are so many intertwined issues within education policy and within NCLB that it’s really hard to take on one issue without opening a can of worms around another.

Second, each time you peel off a popular issue from a comprehensive bill you lessen the incentive to take up an overall reauthorization. Think of it as a long railroad train. Each time you take a car off, the train gets shorter and people are less inclined to jump on. But if you can keep the whole train running everyone can jump on their particular car and you can get the whole bill finished. By keeping the whole bill intact, you can include the issues that are distasteful to some while also giving them something sweet to make voting for the bill a little easier.

I’m convinced that the comprehensive approach is the best way forward and I’m more and more convinced that the Congress can get it done in 2011.

I was a member of the House of Representatives in 1994 when Democrats lost control for the first time in forty years. At that time, as the new Republican leadership came in, there was a lot of same dynamic taking place. Republicans had an aggressive agenda and the question was whether they would be able to work with President Clinton.

Out of that divided government came some significant bipartisan legislation, most notably welfare reform—one of the thorniest, most controversial issues that had bedeviled the Congress for a number of years. It took several tries, but significant welfare reform was enacted with support from both parties. So the precedent is there.

And unlike welfare reform, education reform has traditionally been a bipartisan issue. That bipartisan tradition seems to be playing out—something that Mike Petrilli pointed out in his post below when he referenced the joint conference call with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA), Mike Enzi (R-WY), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who served as U.S. Secretary of Education under President Reagan. Also very significant is that the Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-Ohio), was the chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee when NCLB was enacted. Not in recent memory has there been a speaker with the education policy background that Speaker Boehner brings. If the political decision is made to go ahead, Speaker Boehner, working with current House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, can move a major bill.

It is important to remember that NCLB is not going away. Until the Congress makes a change, NCLB’s provisions remain in effect and more and more schools will fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress and be labeled in need of improvement. In the last two years alone, the number of schools entering corrective action has increased fivefold. Without action, we’ll have far more of our schools under this label by 2014, when all students must be proficient in reading in math.

Finally, and most importantly, a comprehensive reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as NCLB, is the best way to address the needs of our nation’s low-performing high schools. Currently, about one-third of our nation’s high school students drop out every year; that percentage is even higher for low-income students and students of color. Forty years ago, the U.S. economy could afford to have large percentages of its students drop out of high school. But today, nearly 60 percent of jobs require some education after high school.

Under current law, the needs of the nation’s older students are not being met because high schools are not sufficiently included in federal education policy, including Title I. For example, high schools only receive 10 percent of Title I dollars even though they educate approximately 25 percent of our nation’s low-income students. Because many high schools do not receive federal dollars, they are not included in NCLB’s accountability system.

There are a number of ways that ESEA reauthorization can better address the needs of high schools. First, it can establish the goal that all students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers and hold states, districts, and schools accountable to this goal. Second, it can shift away from the one-size fits all school improvement system prescribed by the federal government to one that allows state and districts to determine the best reform strategies based on data and tailored to the unique needs of their low-performing secondary schools. Finally, it can support investments geared toward improving low-performing middle and high schools.

This piece originally appeared in National Journal’s Education Expert’s blog.


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