After eight months of negotiations between Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Ranking Member Mike Enzi (R-WY), an agreement for a base bill for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA or No child Left Behind) was finally reached. While the draft for the base bill was released a few days ago, an updated version of the bill with manger’s amendments has recently been posted this week. For educators, parents, students, community stakeholders and education advocates, they have waited for this moment since 2007, the year that No Child Left Behind expired. For a moment, it seemed as if hopes for a comprehensive reauthorization on the Senate side were dwindling away. While several education advocates were busy trying to determine the progress of the Senate HELP Committee, other entities were moving along in the face of inaction, each marking a different path toward revamping our cornerstone federal law on education:

• The House Committee on Education and the Workforce has moved forward with a piecemeal approach to reauthorization, having passed three bills through committee (program elimination, funding flexibility between the titles of ESEA, and a charter schools bill) but only one was done in a bi-partisan fashion. Teacher quality and accountability are next on the list.
• The Department of Education recently issued a State waiver program for flexibility on ESEA – States will receive ESEA flexibility if they submit a plan that meets all the rigorous and comprehensive requirements in the three critical areas that are designed to improve outcomes for all students, close achievement-gaps, and improve the quality of instruction. In addition, States will be granted a waiver for the duration of a two-year window. 41 states have now expressed their interest in applying for a waiver.
• Senate Republicans Alexander (R-TN), Isakson (R-GA), Kirk (R-NC) and Burr (R-NC) introduced a series of their own bills to reauthorize ESEA which focused on providing more support for local flexibility for states. They closely resemble what the House is working on.

Nevertheless, ESEA reauthorization via the Senate HELP Committee is now moving through the Senate with the first committee mark-up of the bill scheduled for today, October 19th. Although the current draft is far from perfect, education advocacy groups weighed in on the base bill which implemented new changes coupled with compromises made between Senate HELP staffers (presumably to keep Republican HELP members from walking away from the table and keeping this a bi-partisan effort). The revised Harkin-Enzi bill contains the following new changes:

• It scales back the issues of teacher evaluation and equity; states now have the option under the competitive Teacher Improvement Fund (TIF) to implement teacher/principal evaluation based on student achievement, as well as distributing teachers equitably among high-poverty and high-minority schools based on their effectiveness.

• It would scrap the centerpiece for school accountability – Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Instead, States would have to demonstrate that they are making “continuous improvement” (how exactly do we measure this for tracking progress on English Learners, Student with special needs, students living in poverty and students of color?).

• Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation (i3) and Promise Neighborhoods would be enshrined into federal law – all of which are President Obama’s reform initiatives.

• Additional room is offered with the school turnaround practices with a whole school reform model being included in the mix.

It is our understanding that 144 amendments have been filed in anticipation of this Wednesday’s ESEA mark-up, thus, as the process moves forward we’ll have a better sense of where all this is going. Several groups have expressed serious concerns on the bill (including First Focus Campaign for Children), others have given approval and yet some are opposing the whole piece altogether. Nevertheless, we will continue to advocate directly for legislative change in ESEA to ensure that good policy overcomes politics and therefore comprehensively meeting the needs of our children, youth and families in federal policy decisions.