April 8, 2015

8 Thoughts on Lamar Alexander & Patty Murray’s “Every Child Achieves Act of 2015”

By Bellwether

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Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray released a bipartisan draft bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Check out Education Week’s Lauren Camera for the rundown, or read the full 600-page bill yourself. Here are my 8 takeaways: 
1. Let’s praise the process. Senators Alexander and Murray deserve tremendous credit for working together on a bipartisan bill. Kudos also to their staff for working across party lines on this complicated piece of legislation. In an era where this type of bipartisan committee work is rare, it’s important that we acknowledge that it’s still valuable and possible.
2. It’s legislative progress, but still no student growth? Everyone seems to agree on the need to measure student growth, but our policymakers keep neglecting it. There’s nothing in this bill that would require states to measure student growth–indeed, there are restrictions on the Secretary from having any say on on it. This bill allows states to add more measures if they wish but ultimately settles on the same indicators of school quality we’ve been using for 13 years now, proficiency and graduation rates. States have had the option to include growth in their accountability systems for 10 years now, but, ironically, Alexander and Murray are unwilling to ask states to make any progress on this front.
3. The draft has the right accountability structureThe bill relies on state plans for everything from academic standards to the process for identifying and intervening in low-performing schools. It also requires states to submit their plans to the Secretary for peer review and approval. All of this is the right basic structure. Successful educational reform requires buy-in at the local level, and state plans are the best lever for the federal government to get it.
4. The bill places too many restrictions on the federal role, almost turning ESEA into an entitlement program for states. Just as I wrote about Senator Alexander’s proposal back in January, this bill would require the Secretary to prove that a state didn’t deserve its Title I money. Within 90 days of a state request, the Secretary must convene a peer review panel and provide “substantial evidence” that the plan does not meet the requirements of the law. Then, the Secretary “may” disapprove a state plan only after prosecuting the state at a public hearing.  Otherwise, the plan must be approved.
If the process sounds ridiculous and impossible, the bill also sets parameters on the Secretary. He cannot ask the state to make any changes to its accountability system, including the goals, targets, or weights of individual measures.
5. Government doesn’t work in 90-day increments.  If 90 days sounds like a reasonable timeframe for government leaders to conduct their business, it’s worth noting that Senator Alexander took 84 days between his January draft bill and this week’s draft, and this week’s version is far from final.
Lest you think I’m picking on Congress, I also ran the numbers for a few NCLB waiver states. It took the U.S. Department of Education 87 days to approve the waiver request from Alexander’s home state of Tennessee and 129 days for Murray’s home state of Washington to earn its waiver (since expired). Most states were somewhere in that range or a little longer. (As someone who was at the Department for the first two rounds of waiver approvals, I can attest that us federal bureaucrats worked extremely long days to get them done that fast. They are also two-sided exchanges and timing depended just as much on state timelines as the federal government’s.) While I appreciate the need for prompt responses, strict, arbitrary time limits are not good policy.
6. Where’s the money? There are no actual dollar signs attached to any of the titles or provisions in the draft bill, so funding authorizations for the foreseeable future are still a mystery. The White House has already signaled, loudly, that President Obama will not sign a bill that doesn’t at least keep up with inflation.
7. Where’s the pre-k? Early childhood advocates may have been holding out hope for a new funding stream through ESEA. That didn’t make it into the bill. Instead, it would allow districts to use their Title I dollars to fund early childhood programs. But, importantly, any pre-k spending would dilute the funds districts spend on their K-12 schools.
8. Can it pass the full Senate? Can it pass the House? As we praise Alexander and Murray for their bipartisan compromise, don’t lose sight of the fact that this bill still has a long way to go before it becomes law. The political obstacles are daunting. Would the 2016 presidential candidates vote for this bill? Can the House get enough Republican votes on a compromise bill that doesn’t actually give them any major wins?

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