Senators Playing Politics with Education

Holy Toledo! Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) actually believe the 2011 rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965—reauthorized in 2002 as No Child Left Behind—can be voted on by the Senate by Thanksgiving and the House by Christmas.

No way will this become a reality. I put the odds at 15-1 against the bill passing in its present form, even though it emerged from Harkin’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee by a 15-7 bipartisan vote on Oct. 20.

The committee vote was a “stick out the tongue” moment by Sen. Harkin directed at President Obama, as well as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, for offering states waivers on the current NCLB law. And yes, they are all from the same political party. Not a good start for passage or for an eventual signature on the bill by the President. “The waiver package … gave us a sense of urgency”, Harkin said.

According to news reports, even the National Education Association (NEA) and GOP saw “eye-to-eye” in states being allowed to submit their own remedies for turning the lowest performing schools around. Sec. Duncan says the new rewrite of NCLB/ESEA gives too much away on teacher evaluations and student achievement targets.

To add fuel to the political fire, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the NAACP, Democrats for Education Reform, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Education Trust have all officially come out against it. They concur that federal accountability has been jeopardized by the focus on the lowest 5 percent of schools at the expense of the vast majority of students, who could be ignored if matters are left up to individual states rather than federal law.

Since the NCLB was passed in 2001 and became law in 2002, many educators have been opposed to several aspects of the law:

• An over reliance on fill-in-the-bubble testing at the expense of curtailing creativity, innovation and critical thinking
• Promoting the importance of test-taking skills over problem solving
• Deemphasizing instruction in history-social science and science in favor of literacy and numeracy

During the bill’s mark-up period, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) filed 74 amendments. In a compromise he agreed to scale back his amendments if the bill could have a full committee hearing on Nov. 8, prior to going to the Senate floor.

The key provisions of the Harkin/Enzi bill greatly limit the federal role over the 100,000 schools in America, radically amending the current NCLB law. Under the current bill, there would be no more Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets, leading to required Program Improvement sanctions for the vast majority of schools.

As stated earlier, the federal role, if the bill passes Congress, will focus on the lowest 5 percent of the 100,000 schools. Charles Borone, director of Democrats for Education Reform, believes this new bill has senators from both parties turning their backs on improving educational opportunities for children from low SES backgrounds.

The current law has had little or no effect on closing the racial achievement gap as envisioned by both President Bush and Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2001, when the NCLB was signed into law. As I read portions of the 800-page bill, I am not convinced America gets any closer to this goal with the new legislation.

Our legislative goal should be to find ways to provide each student with a quality teacher in every subject, in every classroom in America. There should be no difference in the quality of the teacher from the schools in wealthy, tree-lined suburbs to the poor schools in the crowded inner cities.

If we can land a man on the moon in one decade in 1969, without the technical know-how to make it happen at the beginning of the decade, we can find ways to provide each and every child with an exemplary teacher in every classroom.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. I think what they are saying is MONEY is not the answer.  I believe that.  We have a history of dumping more money and getting lower scores.  Get used to it.  We are broke.  We do have thhe dream act, signed by Brown. That should improve things.

  2. Joe, I agree the current Congress probably won’t pass this bill, given that they can’t do anything.  However, the current ESEA requirements are unworkable.  It is a laudable goal to have 100% proficiency for students in every school, but everyone knows that 100% success in any endeavor isn’t possible. 

    Federal policy should hold schools accountable for GAINS, not absolute achievement numbers.  It would be up to the states to determine how to measure progress in the new federal legislation.  Sounds like a fair compromise.  California already has a pretty good measure in its annual growth numbers (setting aside the limited nature of API to measure well rounded success).

    The current sanctions in ESEA label schools that are making positive progress (even those with 850-900 API scores) as “failing” and then put all kinds of strings on how dollars can be spent.  The one size fits all approach to fixing underachieving schools is so onerous that many districts are now turning down Title I money just so they don’t have to meet the ESEA accountability numbers.  Other districts don’t have the budget cushion to be able to afford to opt out of the program and turn down the money.  The result is that elective programs, and even science, are being stripped out of the curriculum in order to focus on largely unachievable targets in language arts and math.

    Accountability is important, but ESEA must be modified to allow states and local school districts some flexibility in how they tailor their programs to meet the needs of their communities.  The latest attempt in the US Senate may be our best hope of achieving that goal for the next few years.

  3. Folks,

    Lets get right to the meat of the problem. Students in the low SES program backgrounds have been forgotten for decades and we still fail to meet their AYP requirements across the nation year after year. NCLB isn’t the “solve all” solution but I do believe we all agree accountability must prevail. The bottom line, states don’t know the answers even though they have been given the opportunity to develop their curriculums and provide teacher development to address these educational issues, they still consistently have come up short.

  4. Government will always play Russian Roulette with education . As far as the reauthorize NCLB act, I can say that even though Obama is working at changing it , Obama is still strong on accountability . There is hardly any difference between Race to the Top and NCLB. Both ideas are mirror each other , and both have different names . You can’t get rid of accountability, and bubble testing . As it is in California you have to deal with AYP issue that ‘rewards’ and ‘ranks’ schools . Each State has it’s own academic standards . So whatever happens in Washington is always smoke and mirrors.

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