Education bill aims to give power to states

Congress appears close to passing an education reform bill that would give Alaska and other states more flexibility than the current 14-year-old education law.

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“It’s so much better than where we have been with No Child Left Behind,” says Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of the negotiators who worked on the final version of the reform bill.

The bill does not abolish testing requirements, one of the most hated elements of No Child Left Behind. Annual math and reading tests would still be required for grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. But it gives states the ability to decide how much weight to give the tests. Murkowski says the reform would remove excess control now held by the U.S. education secretary.

“So much of this,” Murkowski says, “is giving back to the states — and to the communities and to the school boards — what was taken under No Child Left Behind, where we basically said, ‘we’re going to suck it all up to the highest level and it’s going to be command and control from here in Washington, D.C.’”

One example the senator cites is the definition of “highly qualified teacher.” Now,  it’s the education secretary who gets to say, but Murkowski says his definition might not make sense for a state as rural as Alaska.

“In the state of Alaska, a highly qualified teacher might be one that is very adept at dealing with multiple ages and different grade spans because that’s what he or she has to do in that small school setting,” she says

The current law was a signature policy of the George W. Bush presidency. Its defenders say they worry the reform will diminish the accountability it demands of poorly  performing schools. But Murkowski says the accountability is already undercut, because dozens of states, including Alaska, got waivers.

“Instead of fixing No Child Left Behind (states are told) ‘What we put out in that law, you couldn’t meet it so we’re just going to grant you a waiver,'” Murkowski said. “That’s not fixing it. That’s not helping the kids. That’s not allowing for accountability.”

Alaska Education Commissioner Mike Hanley says he’s looking forward to ditching the lengthy waiver process. Hanley says the current law’s emphasis on graduation rates does a disservice to tiny schools with just a handful of students per class.

“We have over a hundred schools with less than 75 kids,” Hanley said. “And so you can have a graduation rate, just due to one or two kids not graduating … that fluctuates your graduation rate 50 to 100 percent. Just like that, from year to year.”

The reform bill would still use graudation rates as a measure, but it would allow a multi-year average. Hanley says he also likes that the reform would grant states greater leeway in how to spend Title 1 funds, intended to help disadvantage students.

It would be “still for the same purposes, for meeting those students in need in specific areas,” Hanley says, “but additional flexibility allows us to be more efficient and effective.”

The U.S. House could take its final vote on the bill — called “Every Student Succeeds” — this week, leaving the Senate enough time to act before lawmakers leave for Christmas break.