Thursday, May 19, 2016

What's the Alexander vs. King Fight About?

There's a big battle continuing between Lamar Alexander and John King, and like many spats, it's about more than what it's about.

So what is it about?

The fancy terms here are "comparability" and "supplement-not-supplant."

Title I moneys are given to districts that have a big bunch o'poor students. But the rules say that a district (or state) can't use Title I funds to weasel of their own obligations. In other words, they can't say, "Look! We just got a million dollars of federal money for East Bogsweat High School. We'll just go ahead and cut our own spending on EBHS by a million bucks!"

Here's how the conversation is supposed to work:

State/local school bosses: We spent just as much on Gotrox High as we did on Trackside High. But Trackside High has more students with extra challenges. That makes Trackside extra expensive. Can we get a hand here?

Feds: Sure. Here's some Title I money to cover that extra cost''

Here's another example of how the conversation is supposed to work:

State/local school bosses: We are going to spend way less of our own money on Trackside than on Gotrox, because the students at Trackside are brown and poor and icky. Why don't you go ahead and cover the rest of the cost of their education, because we don't want to spend our money on it.

Feds: No! Also, shame on you.

The current argument is about how to measure spending. If we figure in buildings and resources and programs and materials, it's not too, too hard to decide if spending at Gotrox and Trackside is comparable or not. But when we start figuring in the money spent on teachers, computing somparable spending becomes complicated.

There are many examples of how this could go wrong, but let's take a simple and striking one. Let's say that Gotrox and Trackside have their payroll spending pretty well evened out. Then at the end of the year, five Very Senior Teachers at Gotrox retire and are replaced with five brand-new hires. Trackside is now $150K behind Gotrox in spending. The district's only real response is to move around some teachers to balance out spending, so Trackside loses some of its teachers to an involuntary transfer to Gotrox, which evens things out until the next big batch of retirements.

But King and friends would argue that if districts don't have to count payroll expenses, we can continue the practice of assigning Trackside the least experienced, least accomplished teachers, and under-supporting schools to turn them into failure factories.

That seems complicated 

I agree. And this is shaping up to be one of those policy debates in which everyone spouts disingenuous nonsense in which they pretend not to see one or the other of the problems laid out in the examples above. Oh, you don't want to shuffle teachers around like chess pieces-- you must be a Foe of Equity! What, you think that some schools are chronically and deliberately underfunded-- you must be a Foe of Equity! Yes, the baloney quotient is further exacerbated in that many sides are trying to claim the same high ground.

So is the fight really about who deserves the high ground? Nope.

So what are we really fighting about?

The issue is a difficult one, and one of the many contentious areas over which the Congressional shepherds of ESSA struggled and eventually found compromise. But this particular detail is beside the main point.

ESSA negotiations were tricky and complicated, but members of both parties were united by one big policy priority. As Alexander has said,

The reason we were able to achieve such unusual unanimity and consensus is that people had gotten tired of the Department of Education telling them so much of what they ought to be doing.

ESSA was built to spank the Department of Education. It was meant to rein in what Congress in particular saw as the biggest sin of the Duncan-Obama USED-- the writing of law by a agency of the executive branch. Regardless of how you feel about the content of Race to the Top and Waiverpallooza, the groundshattering feature of those policies was that they were essentially laws written by USED-- not Congress-- and the means by which USED started micro-managing every school district in the country.

"We will give you a pile of money and let you break the law as written in NCLB," said the USED to the states. "All you have you have to do is turn over control of your department of education to us."

Mind you, that probably didn't happen because Arne Duncan was power-hungry. NCLB was an oncoming train wreck, and Congress resolutely refused to do anything about it. And the Obama-Duncan USED had some ideas, but they couldn't sell them to anybody in the legislative branch. So they just did a work-around, and while I think their work-around sucked with the sucking suckness of a billion black holes, I will give them credit for being at least partly motivated by a desire to avoid the whole train wreck thing.

But that meant that when the education law rewrite finally happened, Congress was highly motivated to strip the USED of the power to write its own rules. And ESSA does that in fairly explicit language, taking the time and space to list lots of things that the department is specifically NOT allowed to do.

The desire to do that was great enough to motivate Congresspersons to accept compromises they didn't like just so that they could stop USED from being America's School Board.

Here's what Alexander believes that Congress did about comparability:

The law specifically says that school districts shall not include teacher pay when they measure spending for purposes of comparability.

This committee has debated several times whether or not teacher pay should be excluded. Senator Bennet felt very strongly about his proposal to address this, and I felt strongly about mine.
Ultimately the United States Congress made two decisions about this issue, as reflected in the law we passed:

First, we chose not to change the comparability language in law, so the law still says teacher pay shall not be included:

Second, we added a requirement that school districts report publicly the amount they are spending on each student, including teacher salaries, so that parents and teachers know how much money is being spent and can make their own decisions about what to do with it, rather than the federal government mandating it be used in comparability calculations.

The law that the president signed in December didn’t do one thing to change the law that teacher salaries not be included.

That's the compromise that Congress worked out. And John King looked at that and said, "Nah, doesn't work for me." And he has proceeded to try to overwrite the law that Congress passed.

This is why Alexander is pissed. If anything, this is worse than Waiverpallooza, because back then, the USED was making up laws to fill a void that Congress left through inaction. But this time, Congress has a law. Congress made the call. And USED is saying, "NO, we're just going to pretend that the law says what we think it should say."

That's what this fight is about. Whatever you think of the issues of comparability and supplement-not-supplant, Congress has made a ruling, written a law, and now that law is, well, the law. If you think government departments and agencies should just go ahead and rewrite, ignore, or wildly re-interpret the laws Congress passes, we have another issue.

King's argument is, basically, that his way to count the money is the right thing to do. That's a noble thought, but if he wants to write the laws, he should probably go try to get himself elected to Congress. In the meantime, expect this battle to drag on and to be not so much about equity and civil rights as it will be about who gets to b the boss of whom.


  1. This is a good overall explanation. As Bruce Baker has often (correctly) argued, wouldn't you have to adjust for Special Education, ELL, and other cost factors to really make valid comparisons?

  2. I wrote this in an open letter to Diane Feinstein: "At this point, all I can say is please watch him vigilantly. It is totally predictable that he will attempt to arrogate power to himself in ways totally in opposition to the spirit of the recent education law, ESSA. It is totally predictable that he will ignore the counsel of professional educators in favor schemes put forward by testing and technology companies."

    Now, I am feeling pretty smart.