Weingarten Keeps ESEA Priorities on the Table

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A commitment to "360-degree accountability" in schools and reform that is comprehensive, rather than piecemeal, were among the union-backed principles that AFT president Randi Weingarten brought to the table when she sat down with key federal lawmakers to discuss reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Weingarten was a featured guest at a June 14 Capitol Hill discussion of ESEA, sponsored by the Center for American Progress (CAP). The other featured speakers were Education Secretary Arne Duncan; U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), ranking minority member of the House education committee; Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust; and former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Later in the day, Weingarten reiterated the union's ESEA positions in a personal meeting with House education committee chair John Kline (R-Minn.), who is drafting a bill to relax federal requirements on how ESEA funds may be spent.

At the CAP session, the AFT president stressed the union's commitment to work with policymakers and craft a strong new plan. ESEA has generated increasing interest in recent days, partly because a proposal by Duncan to deal with the immediate failings of the current law, known as No Child Left Behind, through waivers to states.

A lot has been learned from the failed NCLB era, Weingarten stressed, and it's time to "fix what's broke." The danger in a "blanket waiver process," she said, is that it "creates a lot of disincentives" for thoughtful school improvement at all levels and invites "gaming" of the system.

Under NCLB, "we've got the wrong incentives," Weingarten said. The law offers little about building capacity and has devolved into "a test prep law instead of a teaching law." A new ESEA must be more thoughtful in its approach and comprehensive in its thrust, shunning methods such as focusing almost exclusively on the bottom 5 percent of struggling schools. Such a move would "mean an even more fractured system" instead of shared responsibility, which is a hallmark of internationally competitive public education systems that the United States must learn from.

Duncan told the CAP audience that the waiver proposal the department is considering is unquestionably his "Plan B" option. It would be much better, he said, for Congress to complete thoughtful, quality legislation that takes policy beyond NCLB. "We desperately want to reauthorize," he added. "I hope that it gets done in a bipartisan way."

Miller used the event to stress the urgency of the moment. With 2012 fast approaching, "I'm worried that ESEA surrenders to ideology as we move into the political season," he said. Moving the law forward means enlisting frontline support and generating "a sense of urgency from the education community." Miller also expressed strong concerns about the impact a waiver process could have on bipartisan efforts to move a bill in the House.

Video of the event is available on the CAP website. [Mike Rose, Tor Cowan, John See]

June 15, 2011