Can the NCLB Reauthorization Pass Before 2012 Elections?

The new Elementary and Secondary Education Act bill, as it is formally known, is finally getting a hearing in the Senate Wednesday – more than three years after the act was due for reauthorization, and after countless calls for Congress to take it on, writes Amanda Paulson at the Christian Science Monitor.

The new bill, sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming, has bipartisan support — and also plenty of detractors, as reported by Education News earlier this week.

Supporters laud the proposal for fixing some of the glaring problems in the current law while giving states and districts more flexibility. However, there are those that believe it has so gutted the language of accountability as to be meaningless, as reported in Education News today.

The bill does away with the controversial NCLB notion of "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) timetables, replacing them with a nebulous expectation of "continuous improvement."

"Accountability is who does what by when," says Amy Wilkins, vice president of governmental affairs for the Education Trust.

"There's no when and no clear what, so there's no accountability. The ‘continuous improvement' language is a step back to the 90s."

Along with scrapping AYP some of the key provisions are:

Requiring states to adopt college- and career-ready standards.

Keeping NCLB's testing requirements in place, but giving states more latitude in determining whether to use one annual high-stakes test or a series of tests throughout the school year.

Codifying several Obama administration reform initiatives, including Race to the Top.

The original proposal released last week also included a number of teacher-evaluation requirements, however it was largely scrapped in negotiations over the weekend in order to get buy-in from Republican senators.

"We are pleased that Senators Harkin and Enzi revised their ESEA reauthorization proposal after listening to the concerns of teachers and others who believe that teacher evaluation systems should be designed on the local level, with teachers working with district officials to get it right," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement.

"The design of NCLB and the push by reformers so overshot the mark in 2001 that even reform-minded Republicans like Senator Alexander are finding themselves closer to the [National Education Association] than to language of NCLB," says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

The initial praise of Education Secretary Arne Duncan has become distinctly more muted after the teacher evaluation provisions were dropped.

"I appreciate the efforts of Senators Harkin and Enzi to build into the reauthorization bill more flexibility for states and districts while maintaining accountability at every level," Secretary Duncan said in a statement Monday. "I believe, however, that a comprehensive evaluation system based on multiple measures, including student achievement, is essential for education reform to move forward. "

Education Trust, along with various civil rights groups, have been among the fiercest critics of the proposal saying the current stop-gap measures to deal with the most glaring NCLB problems – like the waivers – are preferable to a bad reauthorization.

"Even if it passes the Senate, I can't see it passing the House," says Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst for Education Sector, a nonpartisan think tank. "It's not conservative enough."

However, she and other critics must admit that "it shows both sides can come together and have a starting point for negotiations."

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