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Curmudgucation: Senate ESEA Rewrite: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Today the Alexander-Murray rewrite of ESEA goes out to the full Senate to-- well, God only knows. To be discussed by people who don't know what they're talking about. To have amendments attached about darter snails, e-mails from Benghazi, and naming Pearson Corporation of the Month. Honestly, I'm going to try not to watch too carefully as the sausage is being made.

But before ESEA goes to the sausage factory, let's take a quick look at what there is to love and what there is to not love. And let me recommend heartily the six-post series by Mercedes Schneider who basically underwent many nights of sleep deprivation so that the rest of us wouldn't have to read all 600 pages of this monstrosity. You can fine her posts here, here, here, here, here, and here. You can also check out a handy table by Mike Petrilli right here.

So what is there to like about the ESEA rewrite? In a fairly clear and explicit manner, much of the power and control over state education departments out of the federal government's hand. If you think the USED should be abolished, well, here at least it's locked in a tiny little box. It has a whole section (see here) devoted to listing the things the Secretary of Education may not do, and those include very specific restrictions on giving states specific instructions. It bars the feds from tying funding to specific programming (explicitly barring such support for Common Core by name).

This general scaling back is clear from the new statement of purpose for the bill. From the both lofty and painfully specific purposes given a lengthy layout in NCLB, the new bill brings us down to this:

The purpose of this title is to ensure that all children have a fair, equitable, and significant opportunity to receive a high-quality education that prepares them for postsecondary education or the workforce, without the need for postsecondary remediation, and to close educational achievement gaps.

Unfortunately, that's just an amped-up version of "college and career ready," which is its own big fat slice of baloney. So we've gotten rid of federally-coerced Core standards, but we've put into the federal law the short, failed definition of educational success on which the foundation of those standards was built.

This is a recurring issue in the bill-- though it clearly wants to sell itself as a purging of Common Core from the national school system, the bill is haunted by the ghosts, both linguistic and programmatic, of NCLB. We get rid of AYP and mandatory sanctions for failing the Big Standardized Test, but we retain our commitment to test-driven accountability and interventions in failing schools. The feds cannot tell states how to manage teacher evaluation systems-- but those systems must be in place.

The new ESEA doesn't dismantle the machine that has been chewing up public ed so much as it forces the USED to hand the keys to the Leveller over to the states.

How much you like the new ESEA (or don't) will have a lot to do with how well you like your state department of education (or whoever bosses them around). Because those are the folks who are going to decide what tests will be given, what will be done with the results, who's failing, and what is going to be done to them.

Other reformster ideas are codified into law here. The new ESEA offers grant incentives for teacher merit pay systems (though the grants will only get things started-- sustaining funds will have to come from elsewhere). There are also competitive grants for teaching "traditional american" history and literacy education (this one is nearly incomprehensible). There are several specific pet projects that can look forward to an infusion of free federal money.

You will also love the new ESEA if you are Teach for America. Kudos to Schneider for spotting this item under Title II and the heading of Things Other Than Actual Teachers That States Can Spend Title II Money For:

(V) recent graduates of institutions of higher education with records of academic distinction who demonstrate the potential to become highly effective teachers, principals, or other school leaders. (pgs. 231-32).

Yes, that's TFA. "Other school leaders" is a particularly slick construction, neatly covering all those TFAers who are there to start their career as edubusinessmen or edubureaucrats.

If you are in the charter biz, you will love the new ESEA so much that you will want to marry it.

Granted, there is a downside for charters-- the law calls for them to serve the same population as public schools (a real cramp in many charters' business plan) and a call for transparency with financial monitoring and evaluation-- though this is only for the "public" charters, which fits nicely with a loophole written into the law which encourages charters to function as pubic-private hybrids. Since charters already like to argue that they have a private business's right to opacity, I'm betting that they will welcome further arguments to avoid oversight.

So the charter portion of the law balances "a high degree of autonomy" with "monitoring." States can go to the head of the line for Title V funding if

  • they let an entity other than a local school district authorize charters
  • they give charters equitable financing, compared to public schools (so we're done pretending that charters save taxpayers money)
  • they help provide facilities through either funding or co-location
  • they let charters handle budget and operations as they wish, including personnel decision (so, hire, fire and pay at will)
  • they use best practices from charters to improve pubic schools (a toughie, since so far this has happened exactly nowhere)

Charters get three years to show the USED what they can do, or, to put it another way, two years to cash checks and waste taxpayer money before anybody seriously checks up on them. Which strikes me as notably different from the mandate to keep testing those 3-8 graders in public school every single year. And the US secretary must use at least 50% of the Title V money to make at least three grants, and those grants can go to states, local outfits, a private non-profit entity, or any combo thereof. So more fake non-profit shell charter companies can set up to suck down those sweet, sweet tax dollars.

 

There's actually a whole section just about how to get money to charter schools. It's pretty wonky and rather makes one wonder what the Senate could have done if somebody had said, "There's a real problem with public school funding in this country, so let's build a solution for that into the new law." But no.

We'll see as the week unfolds what aspects of the ESEA rewrite attracted Senatorial attention. But if you want to write your Senator and make some suggestions-- well, I'll continue doing so, and I'll continue to say

* it's great to see the USED slapped down, but I watch wit trepidation to see what my state government will do (while counting my blessings that I'm not in, say, New York).

* US education is never going to have a chance to thrive and grow and get back on track until we completely and totally drive a stake through the heart of test-driven accountability. That vehicle is a wreck that won't accomplish any of the things you want it to, and it doesn't matter whether it's driven by the feds, the state, or the circus-- it still won't get us where we want to go.

* if government gave half the thoughtful support to building up the public school system that it gives to privatizing education through charter investment opportunities, we'd all be better off.

In the meantime, I'll just keep watching for updates from the sausage factory.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation.