WASHINGTON (AP) — Signaling some unity in the Senate on overhauling the “No Child Left Behind” law, two senators announced Monday an agreement to move forward on bipartisan legislation to revamp it.
Soon after, however, Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued a statement noting that the bill did not include a provision the administration favors, which is a requirement that local and state districts develop teacher and principal evaluation systems. Duncan said he believes “that comprehensive evaluation system based on multiple measures, including student achievement, is essential for education reform to move forward” and “we can’t retreat from reform.”
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Mike Enzi, Wyo., the top senators from their parties on the Senate committee with jurisdiction over education, made the announcement two days before the committee will consider the sweeping bill that seeks to give more control to states on education and change some of the law’s unpopular proficiency standards. Last week, Harkin released an outline of the plan the senators had been working on behind closed doors that did include a component on teacher and principal evaluations. At the time, Enzi hadn’t yet publicly signed onto the plan.
In a statement, Harkin called the bill a “compromise that demonstrates that congressional Democrats and Republicans can overcome partisan differences.”
The National Education Association teachers’ union, as well as four organizations representing principals, school administrators and school boards, had sent a letter to the senators expressing concern about the language in the bill. On teacher and principal evaluations, the groups said they were concerned about the capacity of states and local school districts to develop meaningful evaluation systems that did not become mechanisms for forced teacher and principal distribution.
On the other side, groups representing students with disabilities, low-income students and minority students had sent the senators a letter asking them to go further in ensuring that states hold districts accountable.
Last month, President Obama said he was frustrated with Congress’ inability to update the law passed in 2002, so he was moving forward to allow states to apply for waivers around certain requirements. To obtain a waiver, one of the requirements to qualify is that states must set guidelines for teacher and principal evaluation and support systems. At least 39 states, in addition to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have said they intend to apply for a waiver, which could be issued to some states early next year. The administration has said the waivers are a stopgap plan until Congress acts.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., told reporters on a conference call he thinks the bill crafted by Harkin and Enzi has too many federal mandates, but he plans to support moving it out of committee so it can be debated by the entire Congress. He said he still has several misgivings about the legislation and could not vote to send it to the president as it is currently written.
He said he plans to offer seven amendments to the proposed legislation to improve what he sees as its shortcomings.
“Because the bill is not perfect doesn’t mean I don’t think we ought to start working on it,” Alexander said. “Otherwise, we will never get to a result.”
Alexander, who served as U.S. education secretary under former President George H.W. Bush, said the strengths of the Harkin-Enzi legislation are that it moves most decisions about whether schools are succeeding or failing out of Washington and back to the states and local communities.
The bill also keeps the valuable reporting requirements of No Child Left Behind and should produce an environment in which states and school districts are more likely to create principal-teacher evaluation systems related to student achievement, he said.
The legislation’s main weakness, Alexander said, is it contains provisions that would transform the U.S. education secretary into the chairman of a national school board. “I don’t think the country wants a national school board or national school board chairman,” he said.
Alexander also questioned the bill’s federal mandates, definitions and regulations for identifying “achievement gap” schools and the “continuous improvement” of all 100,000 public schools. Plus, he said, the legislation would leave Washington in charge of decisions about whether teachers are “highly qualified.”
Alexander said the amendments he intends to offer would seek to bring the legislation closer in line with five school reform bills that he and three other senators filed last month.
Their proposals would, among other things, end the federal “highly qualified” teacher requirements and return control of teacher and principal evaluation to the states.
He said he’s hopeful a law can be passed by the end of the year, so that Duncan isn’t turned into “waiver-granting czar.”
The GOP-led House Education and the Workforce Committee is reworking the law in a more piece-meal way. It has forwarded three bills, but has yet to fully tackle more contentious issues such as teacher accountability.
Published in The Messenger 10.18.11