Senate Committee Tackles ESEA Changes

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by Alain Jehlen

With letters and phone calls pouring in from educators around the country and visits from 15 NEA state affiliate leaders [see slideshow below], a key Senate committee today began consideration of a bipartisan bill to change No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

However, the debate stalled after less than two hours when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) invoked a Senate rule requiring unanimous consent for a committee to meet past the first two hours of the Senate’s day. Committee Chair Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) pledged to push ahead after the Senate adjourns or tomorrow morning.

The bipartisan bill to overhaul NCLB was submitted by Sen. Harkin and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming), the ranking Republican member the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP).

Nearly 150 amendments including a major revision from the two authors of the bill have been submitted and were scheduled for consideration by the full committee this week. But Sen. Paul has said he wants members to have more time to study the bill and amendments.

In revising their original bill, Senators Harkin and Enzi removed the requirement that states develop teacher evaluation systems that require significant use of standardized test scores. Extensive scientific research has proven that students’ standardized test scores are not a valid measure of teacher effectiveness, and NEA applauded the change.

NEA has lobbied for the federal government to pull back from specifying how teachers are evaluated, leaving that for states and educators’ associations to work out together at the state and local level.

Mary Kusler, NEA Manager of Federal Advocacy, said that while the revised proposal is a great improvement, there are still many problematic clauses in the bill and in amendments that have been filed, which NEA leaders, activists, and staff are working hard to change.

Among the 15 NEA state presidents who flew to Washington on Tuesday to discuss crucial NCLB changes with their Senators was Chris Bern, President of the Iowa Education Association. Bern explained to Sen. Harkin why some of the No Child Left Behind provisions that remain in the proposed new version simply don’t work for his state.

For example, schools with persistently low student test scores are required by the law to carry out drastic changes, such as firing half of the staff. That can’t be done in rural areas, Bern said. “We have a hard enough time filling positions now.”

Bern said the proof that these federal formulas don’t work in Iowa is that only two out of 14 schools that were eligible for federal School Improvement Grants applied for the money. The grants come with strings: The school must adopt a federally-designed improvement strategy.

Bern told Harkin that local school districts and educators should be able to design programs that fit the needs of their schools, because they understand those needs better than faraway officials in Washington.

The long list of amendments to the Harkins-Enzi draft include some major departures from current federal law. One would eliminate the controversial “Race To The Top” program of large, competitive grants that have pushed states to adopt approaches favored by Washington officials in the hope of bringing home big federal grants.

NEA-New Mexico President Sharon Morgan visited the offices of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), a member of the HELP Committee, and told him this system is unfair to small states like hers because they lack the resources needed to put together lengthy and complicated applications.

Check out photos of the lobby visits in the slideshow below, or click here to tell your Senators to craft a bill that will work for real students in your schools and classrooms.

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