As I write, the House of Representatives has just completed floor action on the education bill and the Senate is expected to return to it soon. The Senate has a bunch more amendments to consider, some of them important, some of them even germane. The House (under White House pressure and facing Democratic defections) rebuffed all efforts to make major changes in the committee-drafted bill, which is to say it kept the testing provision, deep-sixed all voucher attempts and sidestepped "Straight A's". With the Senate-House conference still in the future, the final shape of this measure is remains somewhat cloudy.
Several points are worth noting, however, starting with the fact that this is an immense piece of legislation, more than 900 pages long. Tucked into it are hundreds of provisions dealing with everything imaginable, from "impact aid" to school technology to Indian education to sundry teacher issues. Numerous pork-barrel projects and narrow-interest programs are protected. All sorts of weird provisions can be spotted. Their implications will roll on for years to come. Yet the number of people who have actually read the full text of both Senate and House bills can probably be counted on one's fingers. Few lawmakers voting on these provisions are on that list. Lamentably, most who have focused on this bill at all-mainly Beltway insiders-are paying attention only to specific items of direct interest to them or their group. How these features will interact with each other is anybody's guess.
If, for example, you're interested in charter schools you would naturally gravitate to the 15-20 pages that address this topic directly, assisting these schools with start up and capital costs, albeit with more rules and wrinkles. What you probably won't notice-because it's nowhere spelled out-is the ominous intersection between charter schools' freedom (and the prized diversity of state charter arrangements) and the bill's new accountability provisions for all public schools. Will a charter school serving low income children in Michigan, for example, one that's accountable for its performance to Central Michigan University and has a five year plan with clear achievement goals, suddenly find itself also subject to ESEA's new "adequate yearly progress" formula as enforced by a local school system that regards the charter school itself as an unwanted rival? The charter folks awoke late to this possibility-and an amendment (Carper-Gregg) to be offered in the Senate seeks to address it, albeit at the cost of complicating the bill even further. But this is just one illustration of how the unseen interactions tucked into this vast measure may cause grief down the road.
What on earth is "adequate yearly progress," anyway? Here we come to perhaps the single knottiest but, arguably, most important feature of the entire bill-and one that's only now getting public scrutiny, including a thoughtful piece by June Kronholz in the Wall Street Journal of May 21. "Adequate yearly progress (AYP)" means the specific achievement gains and gap-narrowings that a school, district or state must make each year to avoid sanctions (and qualify for rewards) under the new Title I accountability system. Far more than standards, tests and consequences, all of which garnered lots of attention, "AYP" is how Washington gains traction on the nation's schools. All those test scores will make no difference until they're placed alongside a gauge that says how much achievement-boosting or gap-closing a school or state is expected to deliver each year en route to leaving no child (or demographic group) behind.
If you want to confuse yourself, read the Senate and House AYP provisions. Consider what lies ahead in conference. And read a recent policy brief from the Education Trust showing how, accordingly to their analysis, this provision is (a) intricate beyond anyone's capacity to explain to parents and teachers, (b) susceptible, at least under certain circumstances, to masking failure by poor and minority kids behind the gains of more fortunate youngsters, and (c) not demanding enough regarding the rate at which these gaps must be closed (10-12 years, depending on which bill you examine).
Note, though, that the blurring, softening and complexifying of the bill's AYP provisions can be traced in no small part to the interventions of governors, including prominent Republicans, who told President Bush that the new federal standards must not be unrealistic. They also made the hard-to-dispute point that, if every state must close its gap in the same period of time yet each state is free to set its own achievement standards, then jurisdictions with high standards will face a tougher job than those with low standards, thus creating "perverse incentives" for the states themselves.
Complexity beyond all imagining, complexity far beyond the politics and posturing that the press has dwelt on, that's the real tale of ESEA. Last week a former Education Department official said he doubts the new law can ever be successfully implemented. It's so very convoluted, he noted, and those who will be tasked with operationalizing it (mainly mid-level types at the federal and state/local levels) lack the perspective, the judgment and the clout to make it work. -Chester E. Finn, Jr.
For a copy of the Education Trust's analysis of the accountability formula, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.