February 14, 2015

Obama Weekly Radio Address On ESEA

By Bellwether

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After a couple of weeks of back and forth on the Hill the President used his weekly radio address to talk about Elementary And Secondary Education Act reauthorization. Suffice it to say it wasn’t a valentine for Republican leaders on the Hill. You can watch and read it here.

Two things jump out. First, the President does say:

That means cutting testing down to the bare minimum required to make sure parents and teachers know how our kids and schools are doing from year to year, and relative to schools statewide.

That’s not exactly an endorsement of annual statewide testing or Secretary Duncan’s position but it’s awfully close. The President of the United States is not going to split hairs over local testing versus statewide testing in a weekly radio address at this point. (Update: Senior administration officials confirm this is the intent, common annual statewide assessments as in current law).

There are not a lot of words to use in those addresses and he could have just said nothing – especially within the architecture of this particular one. The teachers unions, seeing the issue of annual testing slipping away from them, have now pivoted hard to arguing for local assessments as an alternative to statewide assessments. It’s a great idea except it’s inefficient from a financial and quality point of view, would undercut equity efforts, and in many places would likely end up working at cross-purposes with the goal of having less testing. Otherwise, good policy! This is an important signal from the White House.

The second theme is more important in terms of the politics of a possible ESEA bill.  Class warfare in ESEA? It’s on! The president says:

At a time when we should invest more in our kids, their plan would lock in cuts to schools for the rest of this decade.  We’d end up actually invest less in our kids in 2021 than we did in 2012.

At a time when we should give our teachers all the resources they need, their plan could let states and cities shuffle education dollars into things like sports stadiums or tax cuts for the wealthy.

 At a time when we have to give every child, everywhere, a fair shot – this Congress would actually allow states to make even deeper cuts into school districts that need the most support, send even more money to some of the wealthiest school districts in America, and turn back the clock to a time when too many students were left behind in failing schools.

Denying a quality education to the children of working families is as wrong as denying health care or child care to working families.  We are better than this.

I have a different vision for the middle class.

Could be wrong but I’m pretty sure those lines are not pulled from the “How To Make Friends And Reauthorize ESEA” manual. On the substance I’m pretty hard core on the importance of targeting federal dollars to poor students (and one of the very cool moments of No Child Left Behind was when some Democratic and Republican electeds in the House actually supported a plan that sent less money to their own congressional districts and more to poor students overall. Most of those people are gone now, but one is Speaker of the House).  I’d also like to see more federal spending if it were smart effective spending rather than more of the same. But, at a macro level this is political and not about substance and to the extent this turns into a big public fight about money it’s one more reason that if you’re a school administrator the Washington groundhogs* are saying a few more years of NCLB.**

*Groundhog references work all month right?

**Also, this week the old differences between the House and Senate Republicans seem to be emerging again. Senator Alexander says he wants a bipartisan process, that’s not what House Republicans want to see now that they control the Hill and it’s hard to see that caucus being really excited about Senator Alexander riding to the rescue with a compromise ESEA bill.  Of course, this could all be the ritualistic back and forth needed before a bill gets done but a few things auger against that. First, the calendar in the Senate is tough, not a lot of time.  And, second, this cast of characters has not proven adept at fighting publicly and working to get things done behind the scenes on big pieces of legislation like this. Rather it’s fighting in public and behind the scenes.

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