Advice to Senate Republicans: Just say no to Harkin-Enzi*

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We finally have a serious, thoughtful ESEA reauthorization proposal in the Senate, one that should gain support from both sides of the aisle and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. But here's a warning: it's not the bill that scheduled to be marked up tomorrow.

No, that bill, authored by Senate education committee chairman Tom Harkin and ranking member Mike Enzi, is a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas that should alarm folks on the right and the left.

And sure enough, progressives have already made their opinions clear on why the bill should be stopped dead in its tracks. But it should offend conservatives (including the Reform Realists among us) too, though for very different reasons. Such conservatives should back the aforementioned proposal put forward by Senators Alexander, Burr, and others, instead.

Here are the Harkin-Enzi bill's major offenses:

  • An expansive new reach into high schools. While the legislation deserves credit for handing many accountability decisions back to the states, it would launch a whole new series of federal interventions in the nation's worst high schools. Targeting ?dropout factories? might sound like a good idea until you consider the Department of Education's capacity (or lack thereof) for tackling something so complicated and complex from Washington.

  • A Fairyland provision on the equitable distribution of teachers. It would ask the U.S. Department of Education to make sure that states are allocating effective teachers in an ?equitable? manner, so that poor and minority students don't have an unfair share of bad instructors. While laudable, it's more utopian than anything the Great Society dreamers proposed. (Current law requires the equitable distribution of ?highly qualified? teachers, but it's a moot point since virtually everyone meets that low standard.) Following this mandate would require states to dramatically overhaul their school finance systems, equalize teacher pay, move teachers (against their will) to different schools or districts, and more. Closing the ?comparability? loophole at the district level?also required by the bill?would require similar disruption. Some of these reforms are worth pursuing?but at the state and local levels, not from Washington.

  • Maintaining the onerous ?highly qualified teachers? mandate while adding a new one on teacher evaluations. One of No Child Left Behind's most hated provisions is the requirement that teachers earn designation as ?highly qualified.? Not only did this get the feds into the position of micromanaging teacher qualifications, it also did so in a clumsy way, focusing on paper credentials. The Administration's waiver package moves to a policy of ?non-enforcement? around this provision, signaling that it's time to move on. And the Alexander proposal scraps it entirely. Meanwhile, Harkin-Enzi keeps the ?highly qualified? rules in place for newly hired teachers, and adds an additional requirement that states develop teacher and principal evaluation systems?fine in theory but another chance for a federal mandate to mess up a perfectly good idea.

  • Rather than eliminating or consolidating wasteful programs, it adds new ones. As far as I can tell, few major programs are put on the chopping block, and several more are created, including a new initiatives for high schools, STEM, literacy, and ?safe and healthy schools.? As the country is running a historic deficit, this is the best we can do?

Any one of these would be a poison pill for conservatives. Taken in combination, it makes Republicans' decision easy. Scrap the bill and start over?with Senator Alexander's proposal as the jumping-off point. It's a much stronger bill, closer in many ways to the Administration's own Blueprint, and much more serious about re-calibrating the federal role in education. And if Democrats won't go for that?well, wait for a more favorable environment in 2013.

* UPDATE 2:09 p.m. Or just say maybe? As reported by Anne Hyslop at Education Sector's Quick and the Ed blog, negotiations over the weekend have led to the release of an updated version of the Harkin-Enzi bill. It strikes federally-mandated teacher evaluations and, as a result, removes the requirement that "effective" teachers be distributed equitably across the state. The "highly qualified teachers" provision still remains, though. These are definitely steps in the right direction but not enough, in my view, to qualify the bill for support. But I'm feeling more hopeful: At this rate, Harkin-Enzi will evolve into Alexander-Burr by Friday.

-Mike Petrilli

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