Federal Dateline

Revamping While Reauthorizing ESEA

by Bruce Hunter

Quickly say ESEA aloud — ESEA, not NCLB. NCLB is going the way of the passenger pigeon and the American bison. It will not exist after the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is reauthorized.

NCLB is the best-known name for amendments to ESEA, but — and you can take this to the bank — it will not be the name given the 2009 amendments to ESEA. Even hard-core NCLB staff supporters have started saying ESEA when they talk of reauthorization, so members of Congress can’t be far behind.

The name aside, the content of the next ESEA reauthorization is changing so quickly no one can stay up with it. Ideas about the contents of the next version of ESEA that seemed impossible to attain a year ago are sure things today — differentiated consequences, for example. And concepts that were sure things a year ago, like academic growth proposals that track each child’s academic progress from a starting point and across the years, have moved ahead at warp speed, although this practice is heresy to the standardistas who created NCLB. The standardistas believe that measures of individual children will lose group identities for minorities, low-income, special education students and English language learners. I guess aggregating upward isn’t possible in standardista math.

Some fervent NCLB supporters think if tests aren’t built around grade-level content they won’t be rigorous. This suggestion is funny when you consider that there is no standard definition for grade-level material: Only teacher observations and test scores define grade level. Supporters of the status quo for NCLB fear that finding a child’s actual starting point in a subject area will lower teacher expectations.

Lengthy Disenchantment
Why is the ground under ESEA shifting so rapidly?

• Six years of complaints about one aspect of NCLB or another by teachers, principals and superintendents have been registered by the members of Congress as they campaign or listen to constituents between elections.

• Six years of increasingly shrill complaints by parents who have seen art and music dropped and history and social studies diminished in their childrens schools, while the time devoted to standardized testing that no one can understand grows.

• Six years of criticism by respected researchers of the assumptions and theoretical constructs underlying NCLB.

• Six years of secretive, selective, contradictory and petty regulatory decisions that sometimes lacked a sound basis in research and practice.

• Three congressional election cycles where winning candidates almost unanimously ran against NCLB.

• And two popular Democratic presidential candidates who obviously are swayed by voters sentiment against NCLB.

Influencing Candidates
As the volume of complaints grew every year and the original supporters of the legislation dropped off expressing regret, members of Congress and, more importantly, key congressional staff have become more willing to change.

The 2008 elections look positive for Democrats at this moment, but what this means for the future content of ESEA is uncertain because two key Democratic constituencies, educator and civil rights groups, are diametrically opposed when it comes to the reauthorization of ESEA. Some civil rights groups that helped draft NCLB do not want a single comma changed unless it makes the law more punitive and complicated. Educators, on the other hand, want to return to a supportive federal role that supplements state and local efforts. Each side is passionate about its positions.

In practice, education organizations with substantial membership outside of the Capital Beltway are more likely to support massive changes for ESEA while organizations that do not have large memberships outside of the Capital Beltway are more likely to support reauthorizing ESEA without major change. Inside the Beltway there is a “revolving door” from congressional staff positions to inside-the-beltway organizations and back to the Hill. This revolving door provides the inside-the-Beltway organizations access to people on the Hill who are friends and former colleagues, a network of contacts not as readily available to organizations outside of the Beltway. The education groups outside of the Beltway, on the other hand, have members who, as constituents, influence the positions of candidates for the U.S. House and Senate, as well as the presidency.

Both sides of the tug of war over whether to change ESEA have advantages. The advantages of membership groups is heightened in election years and especially in presidential election years like 2008.

What will the next version of ESEA contain? No one knows, but for now the smart money is on huge changes in Title I and other key aspects of ESEA because of the cumulative effect of complaints and changes in the makeup of Congress. We won’t know that until next year, so keep up your communications with congressional representatives and candidates for office in Washington if you get the opportunity.

Bruce Hunter is associate executive director of public policy at AASA. E-mail: bhunter@aasa.org