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4 ways a Republican Congress could impact K12 policy

Education Dive
December 23, 2014

By Allie Gross

In January, the Republican Party will take control of Congress, with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) set to assume control of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

With that in mind, what important K-12 polices can we expect to see change or stay the same in the coming year? Below are four hot topics in the space, where they currently stand, and how they might change, based on Alexander's stances.

No Child Left Behind


In 2002, the Bush administration introduced No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as a re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). The legislation was meant to improve educational outcomes for low-income and minority students. Under NCLB, schools were told they must show Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) against student achievement measures that each state chose, and on exams that each state selected.

While the federal government did not have a role in enforcing these measures or creating the targets, it did control Title I funding, which it tied to state-mandated standardized tests. If a state did not demonstrate progress, it would lose out on Title I.

One of the overarching goals of NCLB was for 90% of students to be proficient in reading and math by 2013-14, but by 2010, it became evident that most states weren't going to meet that expectation. Instead of re-authorizing ESEA or changing the expectations, President Barack Obama began issuing waivers to states. The move was meant to be a "stopgap," but four years later, it's feeling more like an engrained reality.

Basically, the waivers exempt states from NCLB's rigorous expectations, but require adherence to certain Obama administration-approved initiatives, such as adopting test-based teacher evaluations and college-and-career-ready standards like the Common Core. The current reality is that the system is something of a mess, with some states waived and others, who are not, being forced to resort back to requirements that are pretty universally acknowledged as impractical. For example, both Washington state and Nebraska do not have waivers and a large percentage of their districts are deemed "inadequate" despite the fact that they've seen pretty consistent scores over the years. Nebraska alone has 480 public schools there were labeled "in need of improvement" because they didn't meet the targets for two consecutive years.

"Inadequate" and "in need of improvement" are not just labels, they are logistical designations that could means schools must close or restructure — a major source of frustration and pain for neighborhoods near these schools.

So what we can expect in 2015?

Immediately after the midterm elections, Alexander expressed to NPR an immediate desire to revamp No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which hasn't been re-authorized since 2007. Alexander and Republican colleagues like Rep. John Kline (R-MN.) have expressed a desire to give more sovereignty to states.

"The Republican proposal to fix NCLB would give states the option — not mandate — to take federal dollars and let those dollars follow children to the schools they attend," Alexander said in the November NPR interview. While the Republicans have expressed interest in scrapping NCLB, they will not be able to do anything without President Obama's final signature. In August, Washington consulting group Whiteboard Advisers surveyed education "insiders" and found dim prospects for ESEA reauthorization in the next year, with 20% believing it will never happen. However, 72% of the respondents, said they believe Congress will update the federal law after December 2015, which may be more realistic.

Common Core State Standards


The Common Core State Standards started as a project of the National Governors Association. NCLB, and the fact that each state could create its own AYP goal and tests, was making it difficult to compare students across state lines. Common Core was an attempt to standardize the process and create more accountability. The standards were completed and adopted in 2010 by many states, especially once they were tied to President Obama's Race to the Top grant competition.

There has, however, been a bit of of an unraveling of support for the standards. For one, many states have backed out of the two testing consortiums, PARCC and Smarter Balance, behind Common Core-aligned exams. This means the continuity the standards were supposed to provide is harder to see across state lines. More specifically, while Common Core started as a bipartisan effort, it now has criticism from the right and left. The right feels it is an infringement on state sovereignty and an example of federal encroachment on decisions that should be made on a local level. The left believes it perpetuates a high-stakes testing culture that was also pushed by NCLB. Others on both sides  also cite issues in which Common Core was pushed upon states as a condition of federal grants, its untested quality, and its disproportionate funding by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  In spring 2014, Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina actually dropped the standards and are in the midst of creating their own personalized standards. There are currently 42 states with the standards in place.

So what can we expect in 2015?

While Alexander has thrown support behind the Common Core, he is more about rigorous standards than anything. His views lean more toward having national standards that are voluntary. “Washington should have nothing to do when deciding whether Tennessee has Common Core or not. That’s for the state to decide," Alexander told the Tennessean in October.

This is not anything new: In 1991, when Alexander was President George H.W. Bush's education secretary, he pushed for “America 2000," a set of national standards that states could voluntarily adopt. Additionally, he was opposed to the idea of a national school board. When Alexander explained to the Tennessean the hang ups with the America 2000 plan, he said the biggest issue “was that Democrats kept saying, as they often do, well, we know quite a bit up here so let us get involved and make decisions about what those standards should be. I said no, that’s a national school board."

Charter Schools


Minnesota legislators approved the nation's first charter school law in June 1991. Just over a year later, the state opened the first charter school, City Academy High School, in St. Paul. Independently operated and funded by federal, state, and local taxes, charter schools are a composite of traditional public schools (public funding and universal access) and private schools (choice, autonomy, and flexibility). The end result is a mixed bag of independent districts with free reign of everything from the curriculum to budget. In many states, like New York, charter schools are required to be not-for-profit operations, but other states, like Michigan, have far more lax systems in place that allow for-profit organizations to call the shots. The privately owned companies that manage charter schools are not covered under the Freedom of Information Act and therefore are more difficult to monitor.

Proponents of charter schools argue that school choice and competition will help weed out poor-performing schools, while also citing the positive impacts of flexibility in curriculum, as well as hiring and firing (charter schools typically don't have unions). Those against the movement see charter schools as draining resources from traditional public school districts, breaking up neighborhood and community schools, contributing to the privatization of public education, and not necessarily providing better results.

So what can we expect in 2015?

Alexander is an advocate for school choice. Last January, he presented a plan to help expand school choice: the Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education (CHOICE) Act. CHOICE allowed states to use almost $24 billion in education funding to expand school choice options across the nation by way of voucher options.

Early Education


Focus on universal pre-K options has been intensifying in recent years. Earlier this year, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's public push to provide the city with universal preschool was well documented as he advocated for a tax hike in order to accommodate universal pre-K. While his plan to increase taxes for the wealthy did not go through, the state budget did allocate $300 million to the city's universal pre-k initiative. Pre-K was also a massive point of debate in the Texas gubernatorial elections, and political heavyweights like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have also spoken on the importance of early education this year.

So what can we expect in 2015?

Sen. Alexander has been an advocate for universal pre-K, and in February, he took the time to urge the Senate to open the 200 Head Start Centers of Excellence authorized in 2007. In an article on the Senate's website, he was quoted as saying that "the question is not whether, but how best to make early childhood education available to the largest possible number of children in order to give them more of an equal opportunity.”