December 10, 2014

NCLB Reauthorization Lies Through the Center, But Can It Hold?

By Bellwether

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Like clockwork, every two years, Congress decides it’s time to debate a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And the alarm is set to go off again, with NCLB at the top of the legislative agenda for the incoming Republican chairmen of the House and Senate education committees. After sessions marked by record-breaking inefficiency, could the 114th Congress be the one that finally gets an NCLB rewrite done?
It would be fitting, after all, with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act turning 50 next year. And nobody seems to care for Secretary Duncan’s NCLB waiver strategy in lieu of a permanent reauthorization. Plus, with the ascendance of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and a changing of the guard on the left after the retirements of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), it’s possible that new leadership could move past the partisanship that marred the last attempt to rewrite the law in 2013.
But which direction will they move? If the end goal is a bipartisan reauthorization, there are actually two ways GOP leadership could attempt to piece together a coalition:

  1. Bring together the wings. One of the most unusual developments over the past year or so is the convergence of the extremes of both parties. Staunch conservatives on the right, incensed by what they consider to be egregious federal overreach in regards to Common Core, teacher evaluations, and school turnarounds, have found common ground with unions and progressives on the left, fed up with what they see as out-of-control standardized testing and its undue influence on high-stakes accountability for schools and teachers. The solution, for both, is the same: gut NCLB’s signature standards, testing, and accountability provisions, and devolve most authority back to states and local districts. In other words, federal education policy circa 1994.

The problem is, of course, that standards-based accountability–or lack thereof–is one of the only things this motley bipartisan coalition could agree on. The right would like Title I portability, or even vouchers, in the law, or to expand the use of block grants to trim categorical programs. But if there’s one thing progressives and the unions won’t tolerate it’s less money for public education, or the loss of dedicated funding streams for certain programs (arts education, afterschool programs, English language learners, incarcerated youth, etc.). With those policy preferences, the wings of both parties are unlikely to coalesce around a complete NCLB reauthorization–there are just too many roadblocks over funding, choice, and other provisions. And even if they can come to some agreement on funding (say, a large increase in Title I formula funds in exchange for converting most of it to block grants), it’s even less likely that President Obama would sign such a bill if it’s main selling feature is “ending the Obama administration’s National School Board.”

  1. Find the center. Alexander could work with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), expected to take over as ranking member on the HELP Committee, to craft a more moderate take on reauthorization. But Alexander can’t just propose a mirror image of his 2013 “Every Child Ready for College or Career Act,” or a leaner and meaner version of ESEA, as Mike Petrilli suggested in his reauthorization wish list. “Lean and mean” will translate to Murray as “sleek and weak.” With billions of federal dollars flowing to states and districts, many (including reform-minded conservatives like my colleague Andy Smarick) can’t stomach an ESEA without “some number of federally mandated performance metrics and some kind of consequences for persistent underperformance.” In other words, something’s gotta give on accountability and the federal role to get Murray and her fellow Democrats on board.

That something could take many forms, whether it’s a requirement for states to set targets, with teeth, for school performance; a requirement to measure student growth in addition to proficiency and graduation rates to categorize schools; or a requirement to not just rate, but also identify a certain kind (or number) of low-performing Title I schools to receive supports and interventions. And Democrats will have to let go many of their accountability preferences, too–giving up teacher evaluation requirements, for example, along with specific turnaround strategies, enhanced data reporting, and most of their ideal school accountability metrics. In short, the key trade is that Republicans must give on accountability for schools, while Democrats back off on accountability for teachers. 
And in case you were wondering: when it comes to NCLB’s testing requirements, the moderate coalition is more likely to take the temperate approach of Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and the bipartisan SMART Act–which calls for testing audits and streamlining existing statewide assessments–than flirt with a more extreme proposal like grade-span testing.
If (and it’s a big if), Alexander and Murray can thread this needle on testing and accountability, there are then a host of other policies to hammer out: funding levels and restrictions, school choice, teacher professional development in Title II, the Secretary’s waiver authority, and so on. By the end, as with the Harkin-Enzi bipartisan proposal in 2011, most committee members will probably hate this bill. And most likely, so will the House Republican caucus, especially because this is the kind of bill President Obama could sign. It’s unfortunate, but conflict–not compromise–is probably going to play best in the run-up to the 2016 elections, even on issues like education.
The path to a viable NCLB reauthorization lies through the center, and it always has. But until both parties, and both chambers, are willing to compromise, the center cannot hold–and all things NCLB reauthorization will continue to fall apart.

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