Waiting for ESEA Reauth?

New year, same fight.  As we begin the first school week of 2011, EdSec Arne Duncan renews the call for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in today’s Washington Post.  By painting ESEA as the latest and greatest tool in the national push for ed reform, Duncan seems to say that while everyone is waiting for Superman, the Man of Steel is simply waiting for ESEA reauth to take hold.

Duncan’s points are not new, but they are worth reiterating as we head into the latest round of ed policy fights.  
1) Republicans and Democrats have been hard at work on ESEA reauth for the past year (isn’t it more like the past five?), and ESEA is truly a bipartisan issue
2) No one likes failing schools
3) Transparency and data use are good
4) Bubble sheet exams are bad
5) Nine years later, our teachers still aren’t highly qualified
6) We are now facing a sense of urgency to do something about our schools
Perhaps most interesting are Duncan’s insights into what “reform” currently looks like and how it will be embodied in ESEA:
School districts and their local partners in inner cities and rural communities are overcoming poverty and family breakdown to create high-performing schools, including charters and traditional public schools.  They are taking bold steps to turn around low-performing schools by investing in teachers, rebuilding school staff, lengthening the school day and changing curricula.

In partnership with local teacher unions, districts are finding new ways to evaluate and compensate their teachers and staff their schools.  Some districts have reshaped labor agreements around student success — and teachers have strongly supported these groundbreaking agreements. 
If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought these words were written by incoming House Education Committee Chairman John Kline (MN) or perhaps some of the holdovers from George W. Bush’s presidential administration.  Rural ed is back in the discussion, and we are refocused on the achievement gap.  Charters are again central to fixin’ what ails us.  And we have to remind all those involved that we do indeed work with teachers and the teachers unions.
The EdSec is also quick to remind his critics (and those new Tea Partiers arriving in DC this week) that he is not a creature of Washington, noting: “Since coming to Washington, I’ve been told that partisan politics inevitably trumps bipartisan governing.  But if I have learned anything as education secretary, it is that conventional wisdom serves to prop up the status quo — and is often wrong.”
Duncan definitely earns an A for putting forward the sort of rhetoric we need to see at the start of a new, Republican congress.  There is no talk of the need for additional funding or increased budgets.  There is no mention of new programs such as Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation and edujobs.  We are “fixing” NCLB, not overhauling it.  Common Core is barely referenced, and is done so in such a way that most won’t recognize it.  Flexibility and localities are finally to play a greater role in the great ESEA fight.
But the grade for moving such rhetoric into action remains incomplete.  Is the Blueprint being revised to meet some of these new rhetorical priorities?  Is a draft of ESEA ready to be dropped in the legislative hopper as of Wednesday?  What ed programs will ultimately face cuts in the President’s budget next month?  And what regulatory changes can be made now to make ESEA tolerable for the coming year (or years)?
A new year provides Team Duncan with a fresh start to approach an issue Maryland Avenue has been trying to tackle for many years now.  Will ESEA hold the same level of priority on Capitol Hill as it seems to at ED?  Only time will tell.  Today, Duncan signaled a desire to work with the new Republican Congress.  It is a start.

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