Hold On, ESEA Reauth is Coming

Likely one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington, DC, the U.S. Department of Education is now hard at work on draft language for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  EdSec Arne Duncan started the ball bouncing last week, bringing together the education blob to talk about his reauth priorities, including increasing funding for key NCLB components, taking some of the nastiness out of the current law, and codifying some of the policies that have been moved forward under the stimulus package.

As Eduflack has heard from many folks this week, the plan is to introduce ESEA reauthorization in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House in January 2010.  The goal will be final passage of the federal ed law before the Memorial Day recess.  House Education Committee Chairman George Miller (CA) will likely serve as the lead dog moving the bill through Congress in Q1 of next year.
Why is this significant?  For months now, those opposed to NCLB have been wishing, hoping, and projecting that reauthorization wouldn’t move until 2011.  They offered up a host of reasons for this misguided belief, most of which aren’t worthy of dissection here.  The simple fact is that NCLB opponents need reauthorization to be put off until 2011 because they simply aren’t ready to fight the good fight on federal ed policy in a few months.  The “loyal opposition” is not gathered around a few key points.  They haven’t adopted a common language of change.  They don’t necessarily have reccs on how to improve the law to meet their needs.  They know they don’t like NCLB, and likely won’t like NCLB 2.0.  They know what they are opposed to, but don’t necessarily know what to stand for … at least not yet.
Most presume that the new ESEA will not be a major change from the current law.  The new bill will still emphasize accountability and student achievement, but will provide greater flexibility to SEAs and LEAs to achieve it.  The stick of AYP will be whittled down to a nub before all is said and done.  Highly Qualified Teachers (HQTs) will be redefined, focusing on the effective teachers emphasized in Race to the Top and de-emphasizing the checklist of what is needed simply to enter a classroom.  New Senate Education Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (IA) will ensure that special education, RtI, and IDEA will get greater attention than in the previous iteration.  Charter schools will continue to remain strong.  Teacher incentives will see increased funding.  And we may even see Reading First transformed from an elementary grades program to a more comprehensive effort focused on middle and secondary students.  While the law will most likely be bucketed around the priorities of standards, assessments/data systems, teacher quality, and school turnaround, the details will be a reorganization of NCLB components, not a reinvention.
When the EdSec outlined these priorities (and emphasized the need for equity in public education) his remarks were well-received in most corners of the education community.  The strongest voice of opposition came from the Forum for Education and Democracy, who took Duncan to task for seeking to narrow the curriculum, lacking details on real teacher quality, and staying true to current accountability provisions.  The comments from Forum head Sam Chaltain were even distributed under the header, “you can’t just invoke MLK, Jr. – you have to really address fairness and equity.”  So it is clear where they shake out with regard to the future of ESEA.  And at the end of the day, the Forum speaks for more than itself (at least in terms of philosophy).
National Education Association’s strong response to the draft Race to the Top RFP guidance still serves as the best primer for those who want to make significant change to ESEA, particularly if they want to move the law back to where it stood in the 1990s.  In fact, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel upped the ante yesterday when he testified before the U.S. House of Representatives, where he called for a better distribution of exemplary teachers in struggling schools (with additional pay for such moves likely to be the second shoe to drop in his noble pursuits).
Barring the completely unforeseen, Chairman Miller is going to get this reauthorization through before this time next year.  And if I were taking bets, the current line is that the draft legislation dropped in January is going to be pretty darned close to the final that will be passed (with some additional dollars thrown into the mix for some to swallow the policy priorities).  If folks think they are truly going to influence ESEA and shape federal education policy for the next decade, now is the time to act.  Now is the time to have voices heard at ED and on the Hill about priorities and lines in the sand.  Now is the time to make clear what support or opposition will be based on.  Now is the time to form those alliances and determine what the truly make-or-break issues may be.
ESEA reauthorization is going to be a fast-tracked affair.  The first five months of 2010 are going to be spent winning folks over to the proposed law, not looking for alterations, changes, and overhauls to months of work at ED and in Chairman Miller’s office.  Those waiting to engage after the draft legislation is introduced will likely miss the show before the curtain is even raised.