Senate hearing discusses limits of federal government involvement in local education

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Tuesday, November 08, 2011 at 5:51 pm

Screen Caption of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) during ESEA hearing on HELP Committee

Though expected by Senate watchers to be a sideshow and forum for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to voice his criticism of the nation’s top education bill, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing today instead crystallized key provisions of the legislation meant to replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

That the hearing was held at all is unusual, since the bill up for discussion was voted out of committee  in October by a vote of 15-7. But an agreement was struck between Paul and committee chair Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to allow the Kentucky senator to learn more about the language of the bill under the condition he drop over 70 amendments proposed in an attempt to slow down its passage.

And while the co-writers of replacement bill, known as Harkin-Enzi, voted to push it out of committee in a bi-partisan fashion, both would like to see more added.

“This bill is not Mr. Enzi’s bill, and it ain’t mine either,” said Harkin. While Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) told the audience, “It is important to note that I do not support 100 percent of the bill we reported out.  I would have supported a much smaller federal role and far fewer federal programs.”

Witnesses were invited to participate in the round table discussion without prepared remarks, a more informal hearing than is typical of Senate meetings. Senators were also invited to ask questions, with much of the dialogue focusing on tracking teachers and their pay, improving student performance, and addressing high-needs pupils like those with disabilities and limited language skills.

Tom Luna, Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction, said the current bill “has kept the good parts of No Child Left Behind.” He likened the 2002 law to the film The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, – with the emphasis on data-collection showing the good, while the federal government prescribing benchmarks and end goals representing the ugly.

He stressed a state’s right to set up its own education accountability measures was a 10th Amendment issue, and in moving away from NCLB, Idaho is “more than willing and ready to hold ourselves to higher level of accountability.”

Still, with many state budgets squeezed, federal largesse helps programs targeting high-needs students stay afloat. But with that financial support comes expectations states will live up to standards articulated at the federal level. That reality prompted Charles Seaton, a teacher at Memphis City Schools in Tennessee, to tell the senators, “We need your money.”

Harkin-Enzi disavows most of the performance targets schools were forced to meet under NCLB mandates, known as Adequate Yearly Progress, or face consequences, and instead focuses on the worst five percent of schools per district.

Pam Geisselhardt, a gifted and talented coordinator at Adair County Schools in Kentucky, welcomes the increased state control of monitoring student output. “The term NCLB is demoralizing for us at this point…testing, testing, testing…we have no time to teach.”

But accessing a rich data set on student learning is important, the other panelists said. “Everyone says we assess too much,” quipped Amanda Danks, a lead teacher in Baltimore who works with special education students. “We assess ineffectively too much.”

Danks’ comment was reiterated by a few of the national thinkers on the panel.

Rick Hess, an education policy analyst at American Enterprise Institute, said, “It is not useful to try to prescribe models” unless they pertain to the lowest five percent of schools. And Luna, a critic of federal involvement in local education, said he would not oppose federally mandated teacher evaluations but would see a problem if the “federal government tries to define it or regulate it.”

Special education took up a significant portion of the two and a half hour hearing, but was limited to matters of assessment, as well, with some senators and panelists arguing allowing more students with disabilities to receive alternative assessments would demoralize the students.

Harkin-Enzi puts a cap on the number of students who could qualify for alternative assessments as one percent — a point of frustration for low-performing schools with many high-needs students whose test scores would factor into the school’s overall performance.

Perhaps the bill’s harshest critic on the panel is Wade Henderson, President and CEO of  The Leadership Conference. “We must look at our history: states have achieved what they have because of the federal role, not in spite of it,” he said. Countering Sen. Paul’s assessment of the hearing, Henderson argued federal involvement is not a philosophical question, but a “practical debate affecting real-live students.”

Groups as politically divided as The National Council of La Raza and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce side with Henderson. In a letter released today, nearly 30 organizations that seek greater accountability standards for students and teachers said they do not support Harkin-Enzi.

From the statement:

Federal funding must be attached to firm, ambitious and unequivocal demands for higher achievement, high school graduation rates and gap closing. We know that states, school districts, and schools needed a more modern and focused law. However, we respectfully believe that the bill goes too far in providing flexibility by marginalizing the focus on the achievement of disadvantaged students.

Last month, President Obama unveiled his plan to grant states waivers from No Child Left Behind, putting pressure on congress to come up with a reauthorization of the 2002 law, which has been due for overhaul since 2007. Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), the chair of the House education committee, has stated he prefers to augment the nation’s top K-12 law with smaller bills.

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