Republicans for Education Reform

For
months—no, years—the ESEA discussion has been nothing short of maddening. While
many pundits decry the lack of a “clear route to reauthorization,” an obvious
bipartisan solution has been sitting there, ready for the picking. It goes
something like this: Step away from federal heavy-handedness around states’
accountability and teacher-credentialing systems; keep plenty of transparency
of results in place, especially test scores disaggregated by racial and other
subgroups; offer incentives for embracing promising reforms instead of
mandates; and give school districts a lot more flexibility to move their
federal dollars around as they see fit.

We at
Fordham call this “Reform
Realism
”—a pro-school-reform orientation leavened with realism about what
the federal government can and cannot do well in K-12 education. But it also
describes the spirit of the Obama Administration’s ESEA blueprint,
released last year.

These bills could pass both chambers of Congress tomorrow.

 
   
 

And
now, thanks to a handful of moderately conservative GOP senators, including
former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, we have actual legislative
language bringing this commonsense approach to life. In a package of five
separate bills—a “step-by-step” approach rather than one mega-measure—the
senators offer a proposal that would fix all of the onerous provisions of No
Child Left Behind without abandoning its focus on reform.

Yes,
the legislation can be fairly described as a rollback of NCLB—which is
precisely what vast swaths of Americans have been demanding as the shortcomings
of that mega-measure become more evident, its excesses become more painful, and
its remedies prove themselves ineffectual. The reform package offered by
Alexander et al. would eliminate “adequate yearly progress,” hand
“accountability” back to the states, and undo the law’s “highly qualified
teachers” mandate. But it doesn’t abdicate Uncle Sam’s interest in reform, or
in the country’s neediest students. States would still be required to take
dramatic action to turn around their very worst schools. Title I funding would
continue to flow to the highest-need schools and districts. Students would
continue to be tested in grades three through eight and once in high school,
and the results would continue to be reported widely and by subgroup. The
approach is tight-loose, incentives over mandates, transparency over
accountability. It’s “reform realism” through and through.

What’s
particularly impressive about this legislative package is its rare combination
of thoughtfulness and humility. Take the issue of teacher evaluation. Senator
Alexander, for one, believes fervently in the power of rigorous evaluations to
drive educational improvement. His home state of Tennessee—one of the original
Race to the Top victors—is putting one of the country’s most aggressive teacher-evaluation
systems in place. Yet Alexander stopped short of demanding that Uncle Sam
mandate such a system for every state. He understands that he’s no longer a
governor but a senator—and that to mandate a promising reform like teacher
evaluation is to kill it—or render it toothless, just like “HQT” turned out.
This kind of restraint is remarkable—and comes from the hard-earned experience
of watching Washington smother promising reforms through its embrace.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on this set of bills from the Education Gadfly Show podcast.

The
bills also find a clear route through the Common Core thicket. They strike the
right balance—requiring states to adopt college-and-career standards but
maintaining a position of neutrality on whether those states should develop
standards together or alone. This is the best possible place for Common Core
and those states that earnestly want to employ it—with no federal government
entanglement at all.

In a
sane world, leaders from both parties would welcome the Alexander approach and
bring these bills to the floor of the House and Senate as soon as possible, and
the Obama Administration would laud the package for its fidelity to its
“blueprint.” (John Kline should certainly appreciate its respect for the Tenth
Amendment.) To be sure, the legislative language could be massaged this way or
that. Debates should be held around the particulars. But the broad contours are
right.

And,
perhaps best of all, these bills could pass both chambers of Congress tomorrow.
Rank and file members of both parties want to undo NCLB’s prescriptiveness
around accountability—but don’t want to “cut and run” either. This points the
way.

Perhaps
that’s why Democrats for Education Reform reacted to the package with such
swift viciousness yesterday. This generally admirable group—so effective at
giving Democrats at the state level the political cover to break with the
teachers unions—has an unfortunate tendency on federal policy to believe that
Washington knows best. (Its policy director was a longtime staffer for
Representative George Miller, one of the key architects of NCLB.) In a widely
circulated press
statement
, the group described the plan as “a stunning retreat on two
decades of reform” and wondered whose “bidding” the senators were doing.

If DFER
staffers are implying that the Republican Party—the party of Scott Walker, John
Kasich, Mitch Daniels, and Chris Christie—has decided to jump in bed with the
teacher unions, then they’ve really lost their marbles. Sure, GOP principles on
federalism and the unions’ disdain for accountability lead to a similar place
on specific features of ESEA. But for reformers to believe that states will
automatically back away from tough love for schools if given the chance is to
admit weakness at the state policy level. Republican governors and legislators,
the “Chiefs for Change,” and a growing number of DFER-type Democrats have
proven themselves more than capable to carry the mantle of reform without help
from Uncle Sam.

There’s
a new slogan going around Washington this week: “Pass this bill.” When it comes
to the GOP ESEA proposal, I say, “Yes we can.”

This piece originally
appeared
(in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

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