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Capitol Report: June 20, 2013

Capitol ReportBy Della B. Cronin

Congress has decided to take on the debate of how to revise the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to improve academic achievement in the country’s K–12 schools. The big issues are familiar to those who have been watching federal lawmakers struggle to complete the task since 2007: How should schools be held accountable for academic achievement in return for federal dollars? Should those who are charged with evaluating teacher efficacy be required to consider student test scores in doing so? Where do content standards fit into federal education policies? Should federal dollars be distributed to states and others through formulas based on population and poverty or through competitions that drive change? How can federal lawmakers be sure that states are meeting their obligations to serve students of all socioeconomic levels and abilities? In recent weeks, NCTM and others in the education community have been sifting through thousands of pages of proposed bills that might answer these questions and not much is clear—other than the fact that Democrats and Republicans continue to fundamentally disagree on the role of the federal government in K–12 education.

Last week, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, chaired by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), met for two days to debate and amend a 1,100-page plan for improving ESEA. The Strengthening America’s Schools Act (S. 1094) had support only from Democratic members of the panel. Ranking member Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) had an alternative proposal that is about 200 pages and relieves the Department of Education of many of its compliance duties in education law. Senator Alexander repeatedly said that his approach would stop the Department of Education from continuing to operate like a “national school board.” The proposal would not authorize some of the Obama administration’s favorite programs, like Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and Promise Neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, the proposal backed by Democrats would make those programs permanent.

As for investments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, the Harkin plan proposes a new STEM education program that builds on current law’s Math Science Partnership and authorizes states to support other activities with the revised program—like the STEM Master Teacher Corps. The proposal was supported by NCTM and the STEM Education Coalition. The Alexander approach doesn’t include any STEM-specific investments, leaving such decisions to states. The differences between the two proposals are stark, and the debate of the bill provoked some passionate and loud conversations about how to proceed. Although the proceedings were partisan, they were collegial, and Senators Harkin and Alexander said that they hope that the bill will be debated on the floor later this summer and be subject to an open amendment process that will allow for a reauthorization proposal that may be a better compromise between the philosophical differences reflected at the markup.

Over in the House, John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, has a proposal that is much more similar to Senator Alexander’s plan than to Senator Harkin’s. Of course, ranking member Miller has one that is more like Senator Harkin’s, but that plan has no chance of being approved by the House panel, where the Republicans outnumber the Democrats. The Republican plan does retain the requirement that students be assessed in reading, math, and science in grades 3–8 and once in high school, but it doesn’t detail how—or if—those scores should be used in any accountability rubrics. Those decisions are left to states.

Education advocates and policy pundits predict that the House and Senate will each get through their respective debates of ESEA and that the differences in the approved plans will make a compromise very difficult, suggesting that a new law may not be on the horizon.

With all of this activity on ESEA, STEM education advocates are trying to multitask, since the Senate is debating comprehensive immigration reform and that bill includes a proposal to create a new STEM fund for STEM education programs. NCTM and others in the STEM community have weighed in to support the program and are hopeful that when a House proposal is debated, it will include a similar investment in improving STEM education. While math teachers and their students begin their summer break, those who are in Washington, D.C., tracking legislative developments that could affect investments in math educators and classrooms are facing a very busy summer.

Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC

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