Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Senate Proposal Cuts Duncan Off At Knees

The bipartisan proposal from the Senate Education Committee is settled and ready to see the light of day. There's some good news for public education and some bad news for the Obama administration.

Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) expressed a big ole bi-partisan hug of support for this baby, un-euphoniously entitled The Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 (just once I would like to send a poet to DC). Let's look under the hood (you can find a handy summary of the bill here).

The (Partial) Defanging of Testing

Tests are still mandated entirely too often (every grade 3-8 and once in high school), but the bill leaves it to the states to decide what to do with the "data" that tests generate. States must use them in their accountability system, somehow, but it's up to the state to decide how. States will also be given flexibility "to pilot innovative assessment systems." The dream of a single national test, which was already for all intents and purposes dead-- that dream now has a fork in it.

States must keep parents informed and disaggregate data so that subgroups are not lost, so critics who are afraid that nobody would know that poor urban schools are in trouble without test results can now relax. But states must design their own system for intervening in failing schools, and as long as those systems fall within federal parameters, the states can do as they please. In fact, the feds are forbidden to interfere in the whole process. "The federal government is prohibited from determining or approving state standards."

Suck It, Arne

That "Hands off, feds" attitude runs throughout the bill. State plans are acceptable unless proven naught by the USED, and the feds only have 90 days to do so. The Secretary must approve a state plan within the 90 days unless the department "can present substantial evidence that clearly demonstrates that such State plan does not meet the bill's requirements." To whom will such evidence be presented? A peer review board composed of "experts and practitioners with school-level and classroom experience."

Yes, unlike the waiver system that requires state bureaucrats to bow and scrape for Duncan's official okey-dokey, now the secretary must go before actual educators and prove to their satisfaction that a state plan is not acceptable. And if they say it's not, the state still gets to appeal and resubmit. This strikes me a huge shift of the balance of power.

Also, "the bill affirms that states decide what academic standards they will adopt, without interference from Washington." The feds can't mandate a set of standards, and they can't "incentivize" one, either. "States will be free to decide what academic standards they will maintain in their states."

And! The bill does away with any federal requirement for states to develop and implement a teacher evaluation system. It even axes the definition of a highly qualified teacher.

State May Not Slack

The Title IV section appears to say, in brief, that this federal hands-offiness is not license for states to do a half-assed job providing education to their citizens.

Charter Chain Christmas

While the ECAA does include some language encouraging strong charter laws and strong charter transparency and strong charter community connection, the cheers in charter headquarters have to be for the strong and unequivocal endorsement of charters as part of the education landscape. It puts three charter grant programs into law.

Two endorse the launching of charters, with particular attention to "replicating" the successes of "high-quality" charter schools, which of course means that charter chains are hearing the merry ka-ching-a-ling-a-ling of Christmas morning.

The third grant program is also awesome if you are a charter profiteer-- the feds would like a grant program to help pay for the buildings that charters squat in. No word on whether Senators Alexander and Murray considered a bill to cut up charter operators food for them or hire federal agents to wipe the charter CEO's chin when he's drooling with glee.

Oh, Also, Bite Me, Arne

Down among the less-exciting Titles we find support for rural schools (basically releasing them from spending requirements that don't make sense in rural schools). Under Title IX we have additional assurance that states use federal money to help shore up state and local spending.

Also under Title IX, this:

This bill prohibits the Secretary from mandating additional requirements for states or school districts seeking waivers from federal law. The bill also limits the Secretary’s authority to disapprove a waiver request.

And For the Children

An extra point-- federal money may be used for early childhood education. So any and all of the above can be applied to Early Childhood education. So not the requirement for Pre-K that some folks were hoping for, but full permission to turn the federal money hose on the little ones.

So, What Do We Think?

All in all, this is a more pointed rebuke of the Obama administration's ed farfegnugen than I might have expected, but while it still keeps those stupid, worthless Big Standardized Tests enshrined, it frees states to make their own peace with them (and that testing requirement might reduce the possibility that the test manufacturers would loose their lobbying dogs to oppose the bill-- they can rest happy now because their payday is intact). Now, that will mean different things in different states-- I'm pretty sure Andrew Cuomo will be a giant ass to education whether the feds are pushing him to or not.

And while Common Core is all but dead, this certainly frees everyone up to slap it around some more. This bill wouldn't end the ongoing education debate, but it would break it up into fifty little arguments and if that doesn't do anything more than divide up the reformsters money and forces, that's a good thing.

Of course, we still have the onslaught of amendments and the bill from the House and the President's desk to get past. And the enshrinement of the rapacious charter school industry is not good news. So this is by no means perfect.

But most of all, a new ESEA completely chops the back-door lawmaking of USED waivers off at the knees. If Congress can actually pull this off, it will be a gamechanger. There's much to hate about the new game, but there are some pieces of hope as well. Let's just see what happens next.

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