A Quick ESEA Update


There has been a flurry of legislative activity regarding the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Three bills were introduced in quick succession; that would be a busy week by any standard, and it appears in stark contrast to the glacial pace of progress that educator advocates have had to endure for months before now.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, introduced a comprehensive bill last Wednesday to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The Harkin bill, titled the Strengthening America’s Schools Act, maintains NCLB’s testing requirements for grades 3–8 in reading and math based on college- and career-ready state standards, though not necessarily the Common Core State Standards. States could use the test results as they’ve proposed to as part of their NCLB waiver accountability plans. The lowest-performing 15 percent of schools in a state (the lowest 5 percent “priority” schools and the next 10 percent “focus” schools) would require specific improvement interventions under the Department of Education’s School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. In addition, new, more informative school report cards would be required to be published. The new report cards would need to include not only student achievement data but also information on things like school climate. Harkin’s bill also calls for states to establish teacher evaluation systems at the state and district levels.

Harkin has abandoned the idea of a bipartisan ESEA approach and is moving forward with a bill that has the support of all (but only) the committee’s Democratic members. The bill will be considered by Harkin’s committee today, where it is expected to be approved on a straight party-line vote.

As a Republican alternative, the ranking member of the education committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has introduced his own bill for consideration. The Alexander bill offers states much greater discretion in education decision-making as compared to current law. Aside from maintaining the testing in grades 3–8, the bill gives states wide latitude to define and set their own academic standards and measures of student and school performance. Alexander’s  bill would also change the way Title I funds are distributed to “follow the child” to whatever public school the student attended. In addition, Alexander’s bill consolidates various other programs into two large block grants to states and eliminates the federal maintenance of effort requirement for states and districts.

On the other side of the Capitol, House Education Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) introduced his own ESEA reauthorization bill on Thursday. Kline’s bill is essentially the same legislation he proposed in 2012 and passed out of his committee on a party-line vote, but it was never brought to the House floor.

Like his conservative Senate colleague, Kline’s bill shifts much greater authority back to the states by scrapping adequate yearly progress (AYP) and giving states the autonomy to develop their own accountability systems using multiple measures of student growth and identification of achievement gaps. The bill also consolidates funding into block grants and repeals the existing highly qualified teacher requirements in favor of locally developed educator evaluation systems.

The House Education Committee will vote on Kline’s bill during the week of June 17; it is expected to pass on a party-line vote.

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