The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee kicked off its most recent attempt to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) by holding a hearing in February to examine the state flexibility waivers that are available under the current iteration of the law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
Calling the ESEA waivers “Plan B,” US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explained that the administration put forward a blueprint for ESEA reform in 2010 and only moved forward with the waivers after Congress was unable to reauthorize the law. He said that the guiding principle of ESEA flexibility is that it must first benefit students, and states must demonstrate a commitment and capacity to improve educational outcomes. Duncan also noted that the federal government does not serve as a national school board, but it does have a responsibility to set a high bar, especially for at-risk students. Duncan concluded by expressing a desire to partner with Congress to fix NCLB, which he called “fundamentally broken.”
The committee also heard from two chief state school officers whose states have received flexibility waivers: Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday and New York Commissioner of Education John King. They discussed how the waivers have allowed them to enhance reforms already underway in their states, including a focus on student proficiency and achievement gaps, strengthening the accountability system, and improving teacher and principal evaluation. Nonetheless, both chiefs expressed their desire that state reforms developed under the waivers inform ESEA reauthorization and urged Congress to move forward. “Only reauthorization gives us long-term expectations for accountability and long-term capacity for implementation,” said Holliday.
Kati Haycock, President of The Education Trust, discussed the report her organization released the same day as the hearing, A Step Forward or a Step Back? State Accountability in the Waiver Era. She outlined four areas of concern in the waivers: 1) Although states were required to set ambitious goals for raising student performance and closing achievement gaps, these goals were not included in the school rating systems developed by many states; 2) Super subgroups that combine small subgroups of student populations are problematic in many states because they mask the true performance of some disadvantaged students; 3) Many states did not include multiple measures of student performance in their accountability systems, but instead chose to continue using only state assessments in math and English language arts; 4) Many states did not specify what districts need to do to turn around the lowest-performing schools.
Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) closed the hearing with a reminder that the “federal role is to ensure that our nation’s most vulnerable children are not forgotten.” He also reaffirmed his commitment to work towards a comprehensive, bipartisan ESEA reauthorization in the next year.