ESEA Reauthorization Plows Forward

HELP Committee Finally Introduces and Approves Bill to Reauthorize the Overdue Education Legislation

Originally posted in the fall 2011 edition of The Leader

Since the summer edition of The Leader, there have been several developments relating to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). After months of speculation and a number of hearings, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee finally introduced and approved a bill to reauthorize ESEA.

In the original draft of the bill, states would have been required to implement teacher and principal evaluation systems, but the most recent version makes it optional. However, those states that do accept federal funds to build an educator evaluation system will receive monies based “…In significant part on evidence of improved student achievement and student outcomes.”

The new draft eliminates No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), and removes the requirement that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Instead of AYP, states would be required to set “College and Career Ready” standards for schools to meet. States then would design a system that measures student “continuous growth” toward achieving the “College and Career Ready” standard.

The bill also would authorize a new Race To The Top grant program that “…Will provide incentives for comprehensive reforms and innovative teaching and learning strategies that are designed to improve academic achievement for all students.” It also would increase the federal charter school program and award competitive grants to those who help support the creation, expansion and replication of high-performing charter schools.

The bill also requires states to offer “not less than 2 percent but not more than 5 percent” of Title II funds through grants to improve the performance and distribution of highly rated principals and other school leaders. This would include incentives to recruit and prepare principals in high-needs and low-performing schools.

More School Reform Models

Although the bill largely shifts away from NCLB’s punitive sanctions on schools, it focuses accountability on the bottom 5 percent of schools in states. In these lowest-performing schools, states would be required to implement one of six turnaround models. Here is a quick summary of those six models.

1. Transformation Strategy: The local educational agency (LEA) implementing this strategy in a school shall replace the principal if the principal has served in that role at the school for more than two years. The existing staff at that school will have to reapply for their positions. Finally, other schools served by the same LEA are not forced to accept teachers displaced from the school utilizing the transformation strategy.

2. Strategic Staffing Strategy: The LEA implementing this strategy shall fire the principal if he or she has served in that role for more than two years, and replace him or her with a new principal who has a record of success in increasing student achievement. The new principal has the opportunity to staff the school with a team of his or her choosing.

3. Turnaround Strategy: The LEA implementing this strategy shall fire the principal if the principal has been there for more than two years and screen all current teachers in the school, and retain no more than 65 percent of them.

4. Whole School Reform Strategy: The LEA implementing this strategy shall invest in an evidence-based strategy to ensure whole school reform. This entails a partnership with a strategic developer that offers the school a reform program that will have a statistically significant effect on student outcomes.

5. Restart Strategy: The LEA implementing this strategy shall convert the school into a public charter school, or close and reopen the school as a public charter school in partnership with a nonprofit that has a record of improving school achievement. Conversely, the LEA has the option to convert the school into a magnet school or create a new, innovative school, as defined by the state. The new school will have to serve the same grade levels as the old school, and enroll any former student of the original school who requests to attend the new school, and after that, admit additional students using a random lottery system.

6. School Closure Strategy: The LEA implementing this strategy shall close the school and enroll the students in other schools, including charter schools, that still are served by the same LEA, are in close proximity to the closed school and are higher performing than the school that is being closed. The LEA will provide transportation for each student to the new school, and may use school improvement funds to pay for the transitioning of students from the closed school to the new school.

During the committee markup, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) introduced Title I Amendment 5 that would allow school districts to submit their own turnaround plan to the education secretary for approval.

AFSA repeatedly has made the case that there is no evidence to suggest removing principals and staff and closing schools is good for children. In fact, research shows that turning around a school can take up to five years. A principal with deep ties within the community and a unique understanding of the school’s culture is integral to that process. Often, the existing principal is not given the time, tools, training or resources to fully succeed in turning around a school. AFSA thinks there should be a full-scale analysis of school and community conditions before any rash personnel decisions are enacted.

ESEA in the House

The House of Representatives continues to approach the reauthorization in a piecemeal fashion. Thus far, the House Education and the Workforce Committee has passed three bills. One would eliminate more than 40 education programs and another would grant districts increased flexibility in how they spend their federal dollars, including Title I grants for disadvantaged students. The third bill, which passed on a bipartisan vote, essentially would incentivize states to expand the number of charter schools.

Although action is not impossible, all signs seem to point to the reauthorization being delayed until 2012. If Congress fails to act by the end of this year, then the Department of Education will begin granting waivers to states that adhere to certain policy requirements. Currently, 40 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have signaled their intent to apply for these waivers.