July 28, 2015 1:35 pm

ESEA Conference: Accountability vs. Title I Portability

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As Senate and House leaders begin the process of merging their respective bills into a single piece of coherent legislation that can be signed into law by President Obama, there are some crucial issues for public education supporters to consider. Not only are there key differences between the two bills, there are competing agendas between the two parties.

But first, let’s start at the beginning.


How we got here


The Senate bill, the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA), has been touted as bipartisan, thanks to the collaboration of the bill’s co-authors, Senate education committee chair Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and the committee’s ranking member, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA). ECAA was passed out of committee unanimously on April 16th, and was passed by the full Senate three months later on July 16th, with a bipartisan vote of 81-17.

The House bill, The Student Success Act (SSA), is unmistakably partisan. The House’s education committee chairman, Rep. John Kline (R-MN), is the bill’s author. SSA passed out of committee along party-lines on February 11th, with a 21-16 vote. The House bill faced a longer road, taking almost 4 months to gain passage by a narrow 218-213 vote on July 8th.

Now that both bills have passed their respective houses, the next step is to head to conference, where leaders from the Senate and the House come together to hammer out a final bill. For a full description of the conference procedure, please read Mercedes’ Schneider’s excellent blog post on the subject. Don’t look for much action in the near future however, as Congress will break for summer on July 30th, not returning until September. It has been reported that congressional leaders hope to have a finished bill for the president’s signature by this fall.


What’s in the Bills


There are many similarities between the two bills, which will likely remain in the final version. Perhaps most importantly, both maintain the federal mandate for annual testing, although both do away with the Secretary of Education’s ability to prescribe accountability measures based on those tests, instead leaving those decisions to the states. NPE board member Julian Vasquez Helig eloquently noted that, “One of the challenges of the current bill is that it just reduces the federal role. It doesn’t change the paradigm. It doesn’t change the status quo.”

States with reform minded governors and legislatures that subscribe to the test and punish model will likely not depart from such policies simply because they are no longer federally mandated. While this shift may at least bring battles against test and punish policies back to the state and local level, they will be battles that are not easily won.

It’s important to note that both bills also contain language regarding a parent’s right to opt their children out of federally mandated testing. You can read more about opt out language in both bills in another helpful post from Mercedes Schneider. Mercedes’ conclusion is that both bills ensure that states will no longer have to fear falling below the 95% participation threshold and the associated threats of loss of Title I funding if more than 5% of students are opted out of testing in a particular school or district.

Both bills also ensure that the Secretary of Education cannot coerce states into adopting or maintaining the Common Core or any other standards. While the diminution of the Secretary’s powers is welcome by Common Core critics on both the left and the right, there is much concern over the emphasis in both bills to provide increased funding for charter school expansion and authorization.


Portability vs. Accountability


Perhaps the most troubling and striking difference between the bills is the inclusion of Title I portability in the House bill. There was no portability provision in the original Senate bill, and Senate Democrats voted down a portability amendment.

In essence, Title I portability would establish federally sanctioned vouchers, allowing Title I funds to follow low-income students to the private school of their choice. This is a key issue for Republican lawmakers and is sure to be part of future negotiations during conference. As the House and Senate come together to merge the bills into a single piece of legislation, this is a must watch issue.

It has been noted that even though Title I portability has been a “non-starter” for Democrats, “the issue could prove a bargaining chip for stricter accountability provisions.”

The demand for accountability is coming from national civil rights organizations, prominent Democrats, and the president. But just as Democrats voted down amendments related to portability, Republicans voted down amendments intended to reintroduce federal accountability measures. An amendment authored my Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) and co-sponsored by Senator Booker (D-NJ), Senator Warren (D-MA), Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) has widespread support from national civil rights groups that have consistently supported test based accountability.

The amendment requires states to take action in the lowest-performing 5% of schools, high-schools with graduation rates below 67%, and any school where subgroups do not meet state mandated achievement goals for two years consecutively. Although it failed to pass on the Senate floor, there is no doubt there will be a renewed push during conference. Senator Booker voted to oppose ECAA, citing both threats to Title I funding, and because the bill failed to “provide meaningful accountability measures that address the disparate achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color.”

There have been conflicting reports as to whether President Obama will sign a final bill if it does not contain some level of federally mandated accountability.

Article after article has appeared in national publications claiming that without such measures ECAA “does not go far enough to ensure a high-quality education for our low-income students, students of color, English Language Learners, or students with disabilities.”


The Other Narrative


Over the last several months however another narrative has emerged, one that eschews test based accountability. The Network for Public Education and a group of 116 allied education and civil rights groups sent a letter to Senators that read in part, “For too long, our nation has labored under the illusion that “shining a light” on inequities is an adequate remedy. Inequitable opportunities are manifestly evident to anyone who cares to look. The use of tests for this purpose has become part of the problem, rather than a solution.”

Journey for Justice, “an alliance of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states,” sent a remarkably powerful letter to the Senate as well, that was signed by “175 other national and local grassroots community, youth and civil rights organizations.”

We respectfully disagree that the proliferation of high stakes assessments and top-down interventions are needed in order to improve our schools. We live in the communities where these schools exist. What, from our vantage point, happens because of these tests is not improvement. It’s destruction.

Black and Latino families want world class public schools for our children, just as white and affluent families do. We want quality and stability. We want a varied and rich curriculum in our schools. We don’t want them closed or privatized. We want to spend our days learning, creating and debating, not preparing for test after test.

Lawmakers are now closer to a successful reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) than they have been since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) expired in 2007. While there is no guarantee that the bill will make it across the finish line, this is certainly the most concerted effort to date. As Senate and House leaders wrestle with issues related to portability of Title I funds for low-income students, and test and punish re-packaged as equity for our most vulnerable students, it seems entirely possible that compromise efforts could take our nation’s schools down extremely dangerous paths, both new and old.