Alexander Excels at Bipartisan Accord in Revamping NCLB

In Perspectives by Joe Sullivanleave a COMMENT

It’s truly remarkable that the two U.S. senators from one of the reddest of the red states that Tennessee has become are showing more affinity than any other Republicans to work with Democrats to achieve bipartisan accords.

As chairmen of two of the Senate’s most important committees, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker have not only been able to reach across party lines but, equally important, to keep their own ranks in line to fashion unanimous approval of two important measures recently. Contrast that with Gov. Bill Haslam’s inability to get Republican supermajorities in the state Legislature to support his signature Insure Tennessee plan for Medicaid expansion.

In Corker’s case, collaboration with Democrat Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland produced a mind-numbingly complex set of provisions for Congressional action on any nuclear deal with Iran. On the Senate floor, though, it took intervention by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to ward off poison-pill amendments from the Republican right that could have killed the measure.

As the new chairman of the Senate education committee, Alexander has made a major stride toward breaking the multi-year gridlock that has prevented Congress from revamping the horrifically flawed 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. The worst of these flaws was the unrealistic requirement that states make every student proficient in reading and math by 2014 or else face sanctions. This requirement prompted many states, including Tennessee, to dumb down their standards of proficiency and hindered rather than helped student achievement gains until they were redressed.

To stave off NCLB’s worst consequences, when Congress failed to do so, Education Secretary Arne Duncan since 2012 has been granting states waivers from compliance with the act. But these have come with strings attached in terms of testing standards and state accountability for improvement on the part of low-performing and disadvantaged students.

In collaboration with the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, Alexander has gotten unanimous approval of a bill that preserves an annual standardized test requirement. But, as Alexander puts it, the bill “ends federal test-based accountability and restores state and local responsibility for creating systems holding students and teachers accountable.”

Importantly, the bill also preserves a requirement that standardized test results identify achievement gaps on the part of economically disadvantaged and minority students (while leaving it to the states how to go about closing them). Moreover, it retains the present formula for concentrating federal aid funds, known as Title I, to schools with a high proportion of students in poverty. By contrast, a bill approved by Republicans alone on the House education committee would reallocate these Title I funds among all schools based on the number of poverty students in each of them.

It remains to be seen whether a successor to NCLB can finally get enacted in a Congress that remains deeply divided in many different ways. Republican rightists in the House seem bent on stripping the federal government of just about any role in public education. But do they really think it’s preferable to leave a totally dysfunctional law on the books that has resulted in the executive branch exercising almost unprecedented discretionary authority over education policy via waivers?

Since Tennessee replaced its dumbed-down proficiency standards with much more stringent ones beginning in 2007, the state has been in the forefront of fostering robust student achievement gains. This is perhaps best evidenced by the unprecedented gains for any state recorded in the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. The state has also promulgated a set of annual measurable objectives for reducing achievement gaps on the part of economically disadvantaged and minority students.

Title I funding is aimed at contributing to this gap reduction by concentrating its $12 billion a year in federal funding on schools with the highest proportions of students from impoverished households. In Knox County, 36 of its 89 public schools get over $13 million annually in Title I funding that goes for things like tutoring, instructional coaches, and other specialized support for low achieving students.

So one would suppose that Knox County Schools have been making progress toward achieving gap reductions mandated by the state. But such is not the case. To the contrary, these gaps have mostly been widening over the past three years as measured by TCAP scores. For the economically disadvantaged, from 2002 to 2014, the gap has grown from 31.3 percent to 34,0 percent in reading and from 30.8 percent to 33.7 percent in math. For minorities, the reading gap has widened from 22.5 percent to 22.8 percent while in the case of math it’s narrowed from 21.9 percent to 21.1 percent.

Yet even these regressions pale by comparison with the drop in proficiency at the one Knox County school that’s been singled out for a separate federal Student Improvement Grant that only goes to the very lowest-performing schools. In 2013, Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Technology Academy received a $1.5 million SIG that went for a specialized summer school. But according to the state Report Card, TCAP reading proficiency at the school dropped from 19.1 percent in 2013 to 13.6 percent in 2014 while math proficiency dropped from 19.1 percent to 13 percent.

Results like these make a mockery of Superintendent Jim McIntyre’s “Excellence For Every Child” mantra.

Joe Sullivan is the former owner and publisher of Metro Pulse (1992-2003) as well as a longtime columnist covering local politics, education, development, business, and tennis. His new column, Perspectives, covers much of the same terrain.

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