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Senate Republicans' ESEA Bills: A Stunning Retreat on Two Decades of Education Reform

A group of four Republican Senators* announced today that they are set to release a package of education proposals that would amend the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). While some of the specifics in these proposals have merit, the overarching effect of these policies would be to set education reform back by more than two decades. 

"In one fell swoop, Senators Alexander, Burr, Isakson, and Kirk have capitulated in the one issue area where Republicans could reasonably claim to stand with rank and file voters against the political and economic powers that be," said Charles Barone, DFER Director of Federal Policy. "By giving in to those in the education establishment for whom education reform recently has made life difficult, they have pulled the rug out from under parents and state and local advocates across the political spectrum who have used federal law to leverage unprecedented changes in their school systems."

In rolling out their proposals, these four Senate Republicans touted their evisceration of the very policies on which civil rights, business, and advocacy groups have asked them repeatedly to stay strong.

Under the Alexander-Burr--Isakson-Kirk proposal, states and districts would not be required to set goals for improving the achievement of all students or for closing achievement gaps. 

Whose bidding they are doing here is unclear. But it is surely not that of groups like the Children's Defense Fund, the National Council of La Raza, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Alliance for Excellent Education, or any of the 30 other groups whom DFER joined in March in favor of new federal policies under which: "All students within a state should be held to the same college- and career-ready standards" and, "States must set annual and measurable goals for the academic growth and performance of all students and for closing achievement and graduation gaps." (emphases added). Read the entire coalition letter here.

Ironically, just yesterday, a bipartisan coalition in the U.S. House of Representatives showed that it's possible to place these principles over politics when it overwhelmingly defeated an amendment that would have loosened gap-closing accountability for charter schools. (Read the final 374-43 vote tally on the King amendment here).

Moreover, just this morning at a hearing on federal education accountability policies, members of the House Education Committee heard testimony from several witnesses who stressed the important role ESEA has played in their states and districts. 

According to Alberto M. Carvalho, Superintendent of Miami-Date County Public Schools, "NCLB and the federal government, through increased accountability measures, has forced us to address the glaring achievement gaps that plague many communities across this land and has forced us to address historic equity issues that were prevalent in our schools." Dr. Amy F. Sichel, Superintendent of Schools in Abington, PA, stated, "the NCLB requirement to "dig deeper" by looking at the results for disaggregated groups as well as at the results for all students has improved our practice, strengthened teaching and learning, and produced incredible achievement results in Abington."

Other changes in the Senate Republican proposal would require that states only identify the lowest performing 5% of schools, despite the fact that in most states it is the majority of students who are not college and career ready and who need remedial help when they enter post-secondary education. Not to mention the fact that it is only by rating the performance of all schools that one can identify those at various percentiles of performance.

This 5% policy is, again, one which DFER has joined others in strong opposition, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the National Urban League, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the state superintendent members of "Chiefs for Change." ** See coalition letter on the 5% issue here.

One thing we can thank these Senators for is clarifying their positions on how best to reform ESEA and the No Child Left Behind Act on which, up to this point, they had been mysteriously silent. Now that the specifics are out in the open, we welcome debate and remain confident that, in the end, these egregious proposals will wither in the light of day and under the close scrutiny of parents, taxpayers, and the general public.

* Senators Alexander (TN), Isakson (GA), Burr (NC), and Kirk (IL)

** Chiefs for Change members are:
Janet Barresi, Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction
Tony Bennett, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction & Chair of Chiefs for Change
Stephen Bowen, Maine Commissioner of Education
Chris Cerf, New Jersey Commissioner of Education
Deborah A. Gist, Rhode Island Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education
Kevin Huffman, Tennessee Commissioner of Education
Paul Pastorek, Former Louisiana State Superintendent of Education & Member Emeritus
Gerard Robinson, Florida Commissioner of Education
Hanna Skandera, New Mexico Public Education Department Secretary-Designate
Eric Smith,  Former Florida Commissioner of Education & Member Emeritus