Lamar Alexander’s NCLB Rewrite Bill Could Be Win for Obama Administration

Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R-TN) rewritten draft legislation that would reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB) will likely not allow Title I dollars for low-income children to follow them to schools of their choice, an outcome that would be a win for the Obama administration.

Additionally, a report at Education Week indicates that early childhood education is likely to be included in the rewrite, making federal funding for many programs in the states available to early childhood education, as well as elementary and secondary school.

Though Republicans now lead the Senate, Alexander, the chairman of the Senate education committee, has been intent on making sure a measure that would reauthorize NCLB–the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA–is bipartisan. According to Lauren Camera at Education Week, Alexander and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the education committee, are approaching an agreement on the newest draft of the bill, which, contrary to Alexander’s original draft, does not appear to permit “Title I portability.”

The Title I program, one of the original goals of the 1965 ESEA, which was a primary initiative of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, is a good example of why education policy is confusing to many Americans. The program costs $14.5 billion–the majority of NCLB spending–and, according to Heritage Foundation education policy fellow Lindsey Burke, its funding is distributed “through a convoluted funding formula.”

In December, Burke wrote:

In order to make Title I work for the disadvantaged children it was originally intended to help, the program’s funding formula should be simplified using a set per-pupil allocation to ensure maximum funding reaches poor children, rather than seeing it diluted due to formula complexity and administrative requirements. Congress should permit states to make Title I funding portable, allowing funding to follow a child to the school of his parents’ choice–public, private, charter, or virtual.

The new Senate ESEA draft, continues Camera, would also maintain the annual federal testing schedule in which states are required to assess students each year between grades 3-8 in math and English Language Arts (ELA), and in science according to another schedule.

While Murray has been insistent on holding states accountable for the billions in funding they receive from the federal government for education programs, Alexander’s latest draft version would still require states to use collected student data to compare different demographic groups and to report graduation rates, but would allow states to develop their own accountability programs.

Conservatives are opposed to the ESEA rewrite, arguing that the federal government has no power at all to either allow or require states to perform any actions, since the Constitution leaves education to the states and localities. Increasingly, conservative grassroots groups are calling upon their state legislatures and governors to push back against federal intrusion by refusing federal dollars for education programs that come with strings attached. After a half-century of the ESEA, however, state lawmakers have become accomplices to the federal invasion by growing more dependent on federal funds and reliant upon state departments of education and state boards of education to decipher and issue the mandates of the U.S. Department of Education.

Alexander, nevertheless, has said a reauthorization of ESEA is a “top priority,” and last week U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said a new ESEA was essential to achieve the Obama administration’s goals of “equity, more early childhood education, more resources for poor kids.”

The House’s version of the NCLB reauthorization, called the Student Success Act (HR5), was pulled in late February when leadership determined it lacked sufficient support.

In a statement asserting their concerns with the ESEA reauthorization drafts, Burke joined researchers Williamson “Bill” Evers of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a former U.S. assistant secretary of education; Theodor Rebarber, CEO of AccountabilityWorks, Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita at University of Arkansas, and Ze’ev Wurman, former senior policy adviser with the U.S. Department of Education.

“The current drafts, both the Senate and the House versions, do not return authority to the states and localities or empower parents,” these experts assert. “The ESEA has evolved from what was described at the outset in 1965 as a measure to help children from low-income families into an instrument of testing mandates and federal control of public K-12 education and, increasingly, of private education as well.”

“Above all, any reauthorization of ESEA should take meaningful steps toward curtailing federal overreach into local school policy,” the experts wrote. “Reauthorization should roll back the host of programs and mandates that burden states and local boards, and allow states, school districts and charter schools to opt out completely, and allow school policy to be set at the local level.”


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