Federal Dateline

The Votes Are In, But the Issues Are Unchanged

by Bruce Hunter

The results of the mid-term elections are now settled with both the House of Representatives and the Senate turning from Republican to Democratic. When either turns over, all the committee chairmanships and the leadership positions change parties as well, so George Miller of California will chair the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and the former chair, Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, will become the ranking member.

The election has generated a lot of hoopla and thoughts of big change because many public school leaders have targeted one problem or another with the last reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, nicknamed No Child Left Behind.

The next reauthorization of this act will likely finish in 2009 but could finish in 2008. Thus we have at least two and likely three years to chew on the 92 programs contained in ESEA. Most of the attention will focus on Title I because it is the flagship federal education program for elementary and secondary education. But every one of the other 91 programs had a sponsor who wants that program reauthorized. It won’t be over until every single program has been rewritten.

Familiar Matters
The issues in the reauthorization have been bubbling up for five years and will continue to do so for at least two more years. They are not going away, and they are not going to change.

The issues arise from two sources. First, education issues embodied in the words of ESEA and the U.S. Department of Education regulations. The issues that have surfaced come from the teachers and administrators based on how the law and the regulations play out daily in schools.

Second, issues bubble up from the new knowledge and applications of knowledge. NCLB is especially restrictive in this regard. One example is the new knowledge about assessing achievement gain over time rather than simply taking unrelated annual snapshots. But until this year, measuring achievement gain over time was not possible under the regulations.

And just as the issues in the coming reauthorization will not change, neither will the major players who are rewriting ESEA. The committee chair and the ranking Democrats are simply going to change places. And all of the highest ranking members of the House and Senate authorizing committees will be present again.

What will change is the power of the Bush administration through White House staff or the staff of the U.S. Department of Education. When the president was newly elected with a majority in the House and a minority of one in the Senate, the administration’s views weighed heavily in all considerations. But the harsh partisanship of the last five years and a controversial war in Iraq weakened the U.S. Department of Education’s clout with Democrats. And then on Nov. 7, one of those occasional election overhauls took place, and the Democrats now hold the reins of both houses of Congress.

Rewrite or Patchwork?
District leaders need to prepare themselves for the reauthorization through some structured reflection — just as they do when considering a major change in their school district operations.

At AASA, we ask that administrators consider several key questions in preparation for talking to their members of Congress about ESEA 2009. The overriding question ought to be whether to look ahead toward a totally new vision or to patch the existing vision.

Beyond that, consider these:

• What do you believe the goal of federal participation in public education should be? The original purpose was to promote equal educational opportunity. In 2001, the purpose became federal direction to change state education systems and local operations to achieve universal proficiency.

• How do you believe the federal government can best work with states and school districts: mandates based on the spending clause; leadership based on the 10th Amendment; a focus on changing compliance through sanctions; or a focus on developing capacity through leadership and resources?

• Does poverty affect achievement or are professional practices and local policies just stacked against poor kids?

• Finally, what issues have surfaced that demand consideration in ESEA 2009?

AASA staff thinks these issues and questions demand attention:

• Snapshot testing or growth models?

• Student tests that estimate learning during the school year or measure what students know about a particular subject?

• More accurate assessments of achievement of English language learners and special education students?

• Is defining who can teach a state or federal responsibility?

• Is 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2014 a requirement or a goal?

• Continue to use adequate yearly progress or develop a more graduated evaluation model?

• Program administration that’s transparent and backed by scientific support?

• More, less or the same targeting of Title I funds?

• Extension of Title I into high schools?

• Introduction of a national test and national standards?

Opportune Moment
This is a long road, not a short hike, so it’s an opportune time to work with your state association and your region’s representatives on the AASA Governing Board to make your views on the issues known.

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