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Alliance: Keep spending rules in place with NCLB fix

The U.S. Senate might take up a bill reauthorizing NCLB this summer.

As Congress works to update the No Child Left Behind Act, members of the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) hold out hope that a bipartisan agreement will be reached this year. But they warn that more flexible spending measures proposed by some lawmakers could divert money intended to help students who are most in need.

“I think we have heard encouraging signs from the Senate that the bipartisan negotiations are continuing. We’ve heard staff members over the last few months have been meeting regularly to hammer out these last few points,” said Amanda Beaumont, director of federal advocacy for AEE, during a recent webinar focused on NCLB reauthorization.

Beaumont identified the efforts by many states to develop common assessments as one of many steps geared toward fixing problems with NCLB.

“One of the key features … that’s really important is that focus for different states to work together to develop new assessments. NCLB allowed states to set their own standards and set their own assessments,” she said. Beaumont said the goal is for new, higher-quality state assessments to appear online by 2014.

Bob Wise, president of AEE and former governor of West Virginia, added that these assessments would provide immediate feedback to teachers, allowing them to personalize lessons for each student.

Fred Jones, legislative associate for AEE, spoke of the uncertainty regarding the possible flexibility of funding in a reauthorized version of the law.

“We’ve heard there’s a possibility that Title I funds could be used for other purposes. Title I was created just for low-income students. This money was supposed to be targeted toward these students,” Jones said. He expressed concern with what will happen if money is diverted from low-income students and used for pother purposes, adding that legislators also have looked at Title III, targeted toward English language learners, for more flexible uses.

“We definitely know a lot of states want more flexibility from the federal government, but it’s difficult to know how to make the flexibility of moving funds without a more flexible accountability system,” Beaumont said.

While most of the discussion in Congress focuses on how to fix problems with NCLB, Jones pointed out that there have been positive outcomes of the law as well.

“Today we are making progress on the dropout crisis; we now have a 72-percent graduation rate. That’s progress being made; it’s actually the highest graduation rate since the late 1980s,” Jones said. “There’s definitely good news and we’re making positive progress, but there’s definitely a lot that needs to be done,” he added. Jones encouraged parents and students to hold their elected officials accountable for providing them with a top-tier education.

On May 25, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed the first in a series of bills it intends to work on this summer, and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee might take up a bill that reauthorizes NCLB this summer.

Beaumont thinks the momentum for change might carry on in many states and school systems, even if NCLB isn’t rewritten this year.

“I think despite the grim budget situation facing state and school districts, states and school districts are still moving forward on various reforms. I think Congress has seen the leadership role that states and districts are taking,” she said. “If the reauthorization doesn’t happen, I think states can continue to move forward on all this kind of work. Absent reauthorization, I think a lot of innovative stuff that is happening at the state and local level will continue.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has suggested he might grant more waivers of NCLB rules if lawmakers don’t overhaul the law this year.

Jones alluded to the motivation behind finally reauthorizing NCLB this year: “One of the reasons why Congress and the administration feel as though a reauthorization has to happen is this goal of reaching 100 percent proficiency by 2014. The problem is rather imminent. Eighty-two percent of schools this year will ‘fail.’ The majority of our schools will be in the status of failure; what does that say about the status of our system?”

He proposed that a rewording be put in place to address the problem, and that individual student growth should be the primary measurable factor. “I think rather than saying ‘proficient,’ we should have the goal of making our students college- and career-ready. Instead of having some kind of deadline, I think we have to measure how states are moving to help their students make these standards,” said Jones.

Beaumont agreed that the deadline issue is problematic.

“I think the idea of an end goal is one of the most vexing issues of NCLB and this reauthorization process. You are still seeing people talking about a date in the future, or how much you reduce the achievement gap within a certain number of years to be more reasonable,” she said.

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