Whiteboard Chats: Diggin' In on ESEA Reauthorization

David DeSchryver

Let's get beyond the headlines on the ESEA reauthorization with„ Anne Hyslop, the Senior Policy Analyst with Bellwether Education Partners. Follow Anne on Twitter„ here. We gave her a call to get the real deal. Here is what we heard.„

Annual testing is grabbing all of the headlines, but should it take all of the oxygen? Probably not, observes Anne. The end-result for assessments will likely not be that different, for a variety of reasons. Senator Alexander, Representative Kline, and NCLB architect House Speaker John Boehner, for example, have said that they want to keep annual testing, there is support for annual assessments from most education organizations, and there is not that much of a gap between the Democrats and the Republicans on this issue. Folks are burning political capital on this, and it may cost them. There are issues that may be more critical out there, which have yet to get airtime.

  • Title I portability, for example, hasn't received very much attention, but is probably the real sticking point for many Democrats. For the Republicans, it touches on school choice, which has been a critical issue for them.
  • School accountability requirements will likely emerge as critical. In the current bill, there really aren't any details. States have to ensure that they have a rating system and identify low-performing schools, but the details are loose and we can expect some pushback from Democrats.
  • The limits on the Secretary's ability to provide a critical check may be the most worrisome. Nobody is talking about this and it is huge. In several places throughout the bill, particularly in Title I and Title IX, the Secretary actually has very little authority to push back on states. The burden is on the Secretary to show why a program should not be approved or adjusted, and he or she would have to produce a bevy of evidence as to why the state's plan won't work. "This is a very significant change. Essentially, we'd be going back to a world in which states were really left to their own devices to follow the provisions,"„ notes Anne.

What This Means for Program and Grant Administrators

If this bill were to become law, the nature of program administration would definitely change because so much of the funding would be portable. There would be far fewer categorical programs – particular programs for STEM or civics instruction, for example. All of it would essentially turn into a block grant.

If you are an administrator, it will require you to lobby and advocate for these kinds of programs in a very different way. At the same time, states would have more control over the process of approving plans and decisions made at the local level. This may be fine if the state agency is high-functioning and has a lot of capacity, but it could also lead to problems if the state education agency isn't set up in a way approve these plans and provide technical assistance.

The Outlook„

Anne is uncertain whether reauthorization will happen this year. To get a bill not just through the Senate and the House but also to the President, it will have to be bipartisan in some fashion. I'd be much more optimistic if it were to become an Alexander-Murray bill than if it were passed out of the Senate markups without any Democratic support. If that does turn out to be the case, then Senator Alexander will be looking for Republican support in the floor process, in which case we're„ likely not to have a centrist coalition, but a coalition of the two wings of the party – the two extremes that agree on a lot of the issues surrounding local control.