Federal Dateline

Three Wishes for a Better ESEA

by Mary Kusler

Though Congress may be focused on the mid-term elections in November, much remains on the education agenda for this year. Work is already beginning on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Throughout this year we can expect to see hearings in Washington, D.C., and across the country focused on current practices in No Child Left Behind. Members of Congress differ on whether the real meat of reauthorization will occur in 2007 or 2009. Regardless, we can be sure that due to the political firestorm that NCLB has created, reauthorization will not take place during a federal election year.

As we move forward into the reauthorization of the ESEA, there are two roads to consider: One looks backward and seeks to tweak elements of the seriously flawed NCLB, and the other looks ahead to clarify the roles of the federal government, states and local districts to ensure academic success for each child. Based on the input of the AASA Governing Board, we are in a position that is looking forward and beyond.

A Triple Treat
Our position on the reauthorization of ESEA can be broken down into three concepts: clear expectations, focus/fairness/accuracy and transparency. Each of these concerns relates to the current workings of NCLB, and they help to crystallize the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders in educating students.

The first area of discussion is ensuring clear expectations. For too long the federal government has passed requirement after requirement onto local school districts without providing adequate funding. That has left local districts with no other option but to complain about unfunded or underfunded mandates. To clarify the relationship between the federal and state government and between the states and their school districts, AASA believes we should transition to a clear contractual relationship.

This contract would spell out specific expectations from the federal government for school districts and the compensation that should be expected for such activities. Furthermore, just like a real contract, if the federal government did not live up to its side of the contract by proving adequate funding, then school districts would not have to meet all of the required activities. This would force the relationship into a quid pro quo agreement.

Title I Subgroup
The second area of AASA’s reauthorization proposal is broken down into two sections: focus and then fairness and accuracy. One positive benefit of NCLB was the requirement to disaggregate all student scores into subgroups. This has given greater depth to the assessment data, though the current law does not use the information in the best way (namely sanctions). AASA would support continued disaggregation of student test scores, but we would add another subgroup — students served by Title I dollars.

Currently, the federal government only provides approximately 7 percent of a local school district’s budget. With that understanding, AASA firmly believes that the role of the federal government should be refocused on students in poverty. Therefore, local school districts should only be held accountable to the federal government for the performance of students served by Title I dollars.

The federal dollars should be used to supplement both the state and local efforts to increase achievement for the highest poverty students. With limited federal dollars, school districts should be allowed to focus those resources on the students most in need. Under NCLB, the districts are forced to spread their small federal investment across all students in the district.

Steps also must be taken to increase the fairness and accuracy of the assessment system set up under ESEA. The assessment system should allow for the use of growth models, where appropriate, to make sure success is being tracked among the same group of students.

In addition, when measuring the progress of Title I students, success should be seen on a continuum allowing the state and school district to target assistance where it is most needed. Furthermore, school districts should be allowed to substitute their own assessment system if it more accurately measures the effect of instruction on students according to the state standards.

Federal Transparency
Finally, as our experience with NCLB has shown, it is imperative that the U.S. Department of Education increase its transparency in decision making and approval of regulations. For the past three years, important accountability decisions have been made behind closed doors and sometimes never see the light of day. States should be given the opportunity to learn from each others’ requests to the U.S. Department of Education.

Specifically, AASA supports an independent review of all state plans when they are submitted, as well as the public disclosure of all rulings made on state proposals within ESEA. Transparency will go a long way toward increasing trust for the work at the federal level.

These are just the beginning steps on the long road to reauthorization of ESEA. During this election year, your members of Congress will be home often asking for your vote. Use this time to express your views on the upcoming reauthorization of ESEA. Your views really do count.

Mary Kusler is AASA assistant director of government relations. E-mail: mkusler@aasa.org