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Reports of ESEA Reauthorization Death May Be Slightly Exaggerated - Part 4 -The Administration

By Charles Barone, DFER Policy Director

Part 4 of 4

All this week, this blog series has focused on whether the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) could be reauthorized in the next two years. Monday’s discussed a possibile shift in DC politics from partisan gridlock to bipartisan pragmatism. Tuesday’s focused on that would look like on ESEA for Republicans, and yesterday’s focused on Democrats.

Today’s post focuses on what the Obama Administration would have to do politically to move ESEA reauthorization forward. Not surprisingly, history shows that Presidential leadership is crucial. President Clinton led in spurring states to set academic standards, create assessments, design accountability systems, and start-up public charter schools. (See here and here.) President George W. Bush led - although he entered the White House in sync with where some Democratic leaders in Congress already wanted to go - federal efforts to disaggregate data, test all students annually in math and reading in grades 3-8, and hold schools accountable for results.

The Obama Administration pursued the same model right out of the gate with Race to the Top (RttT). The President and Secretary Duncan defined the Administration's priorities early and clearly, and used the bully pulpit to spur states in that direction. As a result, the initiative catalyzed unprecedented changes in state and local education policies.

With ESEA, however, the Administration never seemed to get out in front of the process. Although they did issue a highly touted ESEA blueprint, it was vague on specifics. Maybe they had political fatigue from Race to the Top. Maybe they read the political landscape differently. It could have been any number of things.

After the Blueprint was issued, Administration officials seemed to convey that their priority, i.e., where they thought ESEA could/would make a difference, was state adoption of college and career standards. That’s a worthy goal. But the reality was that the Common Core Standards Initiative was already underway, led by states and NGO's. Moreover, most people think that the Administration's advocacy for Common Core makes both states’ adoption of Common Core and ESEA reauthorization more, rather than less, politically difficult. 

Even if you give the Administration the benefit of the doubt on standards, it never really got its overall ESEA reauthorization message in sync. A few examples:

  • The Administration pressed for an ESEA tradeoff: higher state standards tied to college and career readiness, in exchange for state and local license to set their own goals for which students would be expected to meet those standards, and when (if ever).
  • To make its case for eliminating annual progress goals, the Administration blamed the ambitious yearly benchmarks under ESEA for causing states to lower their student performance standards (for the record, fewer than half of states did, and more than half didn't). 
  • This seemed to imply that there were only two equally bad options: set ambitious annual goals for performance and let states lower standards, or make states maintain high standards with no clear goals for student progress toward them.
  • The Administration pressed to require intervention only in the 5% of lowest-performing schools [with another 10% flagged as unsatisfactory]. This might make sense for triaging interventions. But it doesn't make sense if it sends the message to states and districts that they don't have to worry about student performanve in the other 85%.
  • And there is reason to worry because, if college and career readiness is the goal, none of this adds up. For example, [insert your favorite gloomy high school graduation, or college entry or completion stat here] about half of students who graduate high school and enter college require remedial instruction, a disproportionate share of whom belong to groups (e.g., minorities and low-income families) that ESEA is supposed to serve. 
  • In face of a lack of Congressional urgency to legislate on ESEA, USDOE chose to create some drama it hoped would jumpstart the process. In March, 2011 USDOE asserted that if ESEA were not reauthorized, 82% of schools nationwide that year would be labeled "failures" (at the time the figure was one-third; and the labels were in need of: "improvement" or, "corrective action" or, "restructuring" roughly a "C," "D," "F" respectively).
  • Subsequent data for the year put the real figure at 48%, which came as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about how ESEA really works. The 82% Chicken Little strategy was particularly peculiar coming from an Administration emphasizing the use of good data in education policy. One need look no further than the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the reaction to last Fall's unemployment numbers for a lesson in the importance of earned trust and data integrity.  

As was apparent in today’s Senate hearing on waivers and today’s waiver analysis by the Education Trust, some of these same ambiguities and contradictions are starting to come to the surface. Senator Harkin, for example, expressed concerns today about students with disabilities being ignored in waiver-approved state accountability systems, which is really just another form of the state standards-lowering mischief that the ESEA blueprint was designed to fix.

As stated here a year and a half ago, if the Administration were inclined to attempt ESEA reauthorization, the best approach would be to face facts about the positives and negatives of the ESEA law and USDOE waivers. Then, use those facts to drive Congressional negotiations toward a credible consensus, rather than let highly spun arguments on ESEA issues - from in and outside of government - drive Congress toward another stalemate.

To be crystal clear, I think ESEA reauthorization in the next two years is unlikely. But I am not as certain of that position as others seem to be of theirs. History shows policy and politics are not static processes. One thing moves here, another thing moves there, and suddenly there's the right matrix of connected dots for something to happen. No one predicted NCLB two years before it became law; in fact, a proposal by House Democrats that was very similar to NCLB was defeated decisively in March of 1999 (amendment and vote: here).

One last thing: Should reauthorization happen sooner, or would it be better later? That's a question for another day. But if you're interested in either the "could it" or "should it" ESEA questions, check out the variety of views on those questions and others expressed at today's Senate hearing (via video or written testimony).

Charles Barone has more than 25 years of experience in education service, research, policy, and advocacy. Prior to joining Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) full-time in January of 2009, Barone worked for five years as an independent consultant on education policy and advocacy. His clients, in addition to DFER, included the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, the Education Trust, The Education Sector, and the National Academy of Sciences. Read more here.