Education - Schoolyard Quarrel
AGHHH. Take a look at who the people calling themselves reformers are . Haven't they done enough damage already? That's not to say many of us will sign up with their opponents, Republican or Democrat. None of them has a clue about education or the real needs of children.
by Lisa Caruso
On Monday evening, a group of Democratic self-styled education reformers will host more than 100 congressional aides, elected officials, like-minded policy wonks, campaign contributors, and journalists in the Hotel Washington's rooftop lounge. They will nibble on breaded Parmesan artichoke hearts and network among themselves, toasting the Washington launch of an organization that seeks, its manifesto says, to "return the Democratic Party to its rightful place as a champion of children, first and foremost, in America's public education systems."
The effort isn't aimed at countering attempts by President Bush and Republicans to claim ownership of the education issue through the No Child Left Behind law. Democrats for Education Reform is defending the law -- and challenging the teachers unions and other heavyweights for control of their party's education agenda.
The organization believes that the Democratic Party has abdicated its responsibility to fight for disadvantaged students because it is too beholden to politically powerful interest groups representing teachers, school boards, and school administrators, said Executive Director Joe Williams. The group, established two years ago by charter-school supporters and financiers in New York City and Washington, wants "to make [sure] those vested interests aren't the only ones that have a voice," Williams said.
It's a "struggle for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party," said Dianne Piche, a member of the group's board and the executive director of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights. The tug-of-war pits education activists who support the No Child Left Behind law against venerable, battle-tested education and labor groups. It also divides the party's base of minority and civil-rights advocacy groups. The split over educational policy is playing out on the 2008 campaign trail and in Congress.
Democrats for Education Reform and other activists accuse the teachers unions of putting teachers' needs ahead of their students'. Board member Andrew Rotherham, co-director of the Washington think tank Education Sector, says that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are no different than any other lobby in Washington. "Teachers unions are there to represent the interests of teachers. Do I like the NEA better than the NRA? Sure," Rotherham said. "But in terms of the way they operate and what they do, they're the same -- and you should be equally skeptical of their claims. There are times when the interests of the adults and the interests of the kids are not the same, and it's naive to deny that."
John Stocks, the NEA's deputy director, responds, "We take great pride in representing 3.2 million members who are on the front lines of providing a quality education to the children of this country. I would challenge our critics to find another organization that has done more for advocating on behalf of the children of this country than the NEA."
The unions are unapologetic about their political activity and influence. "Congress should hear the voice of teachers," said Antonia Cortese, executive vice president of the 1.4 million-member AFT. "It's our job to speak out about what works, and if that makes us a special interest, so be it."
The Democratic presidential candidates are clearly listening as they court the two organizations' members. "The road to the nomination is paved with NEA workers," said Piche, a union critic. "They provide the foot soldiers in addition to the money. There's no other place to go for money and workers that is as reliable and considerable."
The NEA and the AFT want significant changes in the No Child Left Behind act and more money for schools to meet its many requirements. They dislike the law's dependence on standardized tests, its rigidity, and its threat to take over schools that don't achieve set goals -- views that most state and local officials share. Many of the 42 freshman Democratic lawmakers who helped return control of Congress to their party last year campaigned against the NCLB and were elected with support from the teachers unions.
The split over the law extends to another mainstay of the Democratic Party, minority and civil-rights advocates. Such groups as the NAACP, the National Alliance of Black School Educators, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the League of United Latin American Citizens line up with the teachers. They say that the law sets up students, teachers, and schools to fail rather than helping them to succeed.
The other side includes the National Council of La Raza, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Education Trust, along with think tanks such as the Center for American Progress and the Aspen Institute's Commission on No Child Left Behind. They believe that the tough testing regime is the best way to hold schools accountable for closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and affluent students.
The tension is also on public view on Capitol Hill, where a divided Democratic-controlled Congress is gearing up to renew the education law. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., an original co-author and a vocal defender of the act, has to balance the competing demands of critics in his caucus who range from new members representing swing districts where the law is unpopular -- such as Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky. -- to fellow liberal heavy-hitters such as Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.
The political high-wire act that Miller must perform was evident on September 10 at the Education and Labor Committee's first hearing on the massive reauthorization proposal that he and ranking member Buck McKeon, R-Calif., released recently. Miller has already had to make compromises with freshman Democrats that dismay the civil-rights groups he partnered with in 2001. Chief among the compromises is a pilot program to let states use standards developed by local school districts to judge whether schools are meeting the law's requirement that every child be proficient in reading and math by 2014.
Piche urged Miller to drop the program, saying that allowing districts to design their own tests "will lead to nothing but different standards and expectations" for low-income districts. But Miller has been talking to Yarmuth, who helped him craft the proposal based on legislation Yarmuth authored and the NEA has embraced. During the hearing, Yarmuth said he took offense at the implication that states would water down the law. "Most states are doing the best they can. When you have the heavy hand of the federal government hanging over us, I think you have to remember there are a lot of people at the local level trying to accomplish these goals."
Democrats are just as fractured in the Senate, where Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., another liberal co-author of No Child Left Behind, plans to introduce his reauthorization plan later this month. On his left, Kennedy has to contend with the three presidential candidates on his committee (Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.; Barack Obama, D-Ill.; and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.), who have all introduced NEA-endorsed bills to make changes to the NCLB.
Kennedy also faces pressure to give local governments more authority and flexibility to implement the law. Ideas to loosen the law's rigid benchmarks have come from senators spanning the Democratic ideological continuum, such as liberals Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan; centrist Maria Cantwell of Washington; and the more conservative Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
And the chairman can expect a counter-push to toughen the law from Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., whose reauthorization proposal has won plaudits from Democratic education activists who support the NCLB.
Money and Process
The No Child Left Behind law was enacted in 2002 as a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It built on accountability proposals that Bush pursued as Texas governor and touted in his 2000 presidential campaign, but it passed Congress only after he backed down on school vouchers and made other concessions to Kennedy and Miller. The law requires schools to bring every child up to grade-level proficiency in reading and math by 2014. Schools that don't progress sufficiently toward that goal every year, as measured by students' standardized test scores, face increasingly harsh penalties -- although few schools have felt the full brunt of the sanctions.
Many educators, administrators, and state and local officials who must carry out the law consider it a punitive, unfunded federal mandate that relies too heavily on standardized tests. Suburban administrators say that their schools are unfairly labeled as "failing" because of the law's emphasis on a few low-performing students, while officials in poor rural and urban districts despair of reaching its goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014. The teachers unions say that the law undermines local authority, narrows the curriculum, and promotes rote memorization over critical thinking and problem-solving.
These groups have been pressing Hill Democrats to fully fund the law and make it more flexible. While Congress has yet to move on rewriting No Child Left Behind, the Democratic presidential candidates vying to tap the unions' organizational muscle and hefty campaign coffers are already echoing that stance. In his remarks to the NEA's annual convention on July 5, Obama charged that politicians "left the money behind when they passed No Child Left Behind. Left the common sense behind." Clinton also riffed on the law's title, telling NEA members, "Our children are getting good at filling in those little bubbles. But how much creativity is being left behind? How much passion for learning is being left behind?"
The law's Democratic champions, including the chairmen of the House and Senate Education committees, embrace its tough-love approach to closing the achievement gap. They laud the act's insistence that low-income and minority students, children with limited English, and disabled students be held to the same standards as their peers.
Despite the differences within his party, Miller has ambitious plans to push a reauthorization bill through the House by the end of September. Education experts say that Kennedy, who plans to introduce a bill later this month, will need to move soon to secure Senate action before the end of year. In 2008, presidential politics may undermine the bipartisan cooperation needed for the Democratic Congress to reauthorize a law so closely associated with Bush.
The liberal duo of Miller and Kennedy will have to negotiate again with the Bush administration, which is determined to keep the NCLB intact. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings was then-Gov. Bush's senior education adviser in Texas; as White House domestic policy chief in 2001, she was his lead negotiator on the law. Spellings has pledged to work closely with Miller and Kennedy, and she has generally avoided taking confrontational stances.
Yet Spellings took shots at Miller and McKeon's draft legislation in a September 5 speech -- with both men sitting only feet away. In a four-page letter released later that day, Spellings wrote, "For the last 40 years, the federal role in education has focused on leveling the playing field for our neediest students, and I am concerned that this draft walks away from that commitment."
Much of the fighting will be over money. Kennedy and Miller, along with most Democrats and some Republicans, have maintained that the major problem is that the administration underfunded the law by nearly $56 billion in its first six years. The showdown with the White House over funding will probably come to a head at the end of the year in the appropriations process. In the meantime, the battles over policy and procedure will occur in the reauthorization process, where most of the tension among Democrats will emerge. Intraparty divisions are already evident in several areas.
Grading Students and Schools
The teachers unions and many traditional civil-rights groups have taken aim at the NCLB's reliance on single standardized tests in reading and math to judge schools, particularly on the performance of students with learning disabilities and limited English skills. They want to give schools additional ways -- in education jargon, "multiple measures" -- to gauge success. But the act's supporters say that strict accountability for bringing all students up to grade-level standards in reading and math is the only way to force attention to gaps in the education system.
The Miller-McKeon draft tries to chart a middle course and pleases neither side. It would retain the law's requirement that a school test its students annually in reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school to determine whether the school is on track to be in compliance by 2014. But it would introduce other factors, such as graduation rates, college enrollment rates, or history and science test scores, to measure a school's success or failure. Reading and math scores, however, would account for 85 percent of the score that an elementary school needs to meet its annual progress goals under the law, and 75 percent of the score for a high school's goals.
NCLB testing hawks, such as the Education Trust, the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, and the National Council of La Raza, as well as the Bush administration, criticize this proposal. They fear that the new measures are too subjective and could lower academic standards, particularly for disadvantaged students and those with limited English or special needs. And they charge that more measures could allow poor-performing schools to skate by without improving children's reading and math skills.
"The federal government needs to be focused like a laser on these two fundamental areas," said Amy Wilkins, Education Trust's vice president for government affairs and communications.
But Miller's proposal doesn't go far enough for the unions, the American Association of School Administrators, and the National Alliance of Black School Educators, among many others. Although pleased that his draft allows more measurements, they say it still gives too much weight to annual reading and math scores. They want to include other indicators, such as research papers, portfolios of a student's work, and attendance rates to give a fuller picture of a student's and a school's progress.
"You cannot have a single standardized test reflect the performance of a student, let alone a school or a school district," said Reginald Felton, director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association.
The split among civil-rights organizations over this issue has also raised delicate questions about who speaks for minority children. The pro-testing groups, which are led by white activists, laid down their marker with a July 13 letter urging Miller and McKeon to resist weakening the law with additional, nonacademic measures. In response, 23 other groups representing a coalition of ethnic and racial minorities fired off an August 7 letter calling for an array of assessments to chart students' progress.
La Ruth Gray, government-relations liaison for the National Alliance of Black School Educators, praised her civil-rights colleagues on the other side of the testing debate for their advocacy for minorities. "But sometimes we have to speak for ourselves," Gray said. "We recognize that a large number of our young people are still behind. We just don't want you to judge our kids by a single test."
When it comes to Hispanic students, particularly the 5 million to 6 million English language learners who lag significantly behind their white peers academically, Latino advocacy groups are split over how they should be tested -- and who best represents their interests.
The National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund believe that the law's rigorous testing regime is the most effective way to close the achievement gap between Hispanic and white children. The League of United Latin American Citizens, however, favors multiple, locally based methods of judging students' performance in school.
Raul Gonzalez, legislative director for the National Council of La Raza, worries that ineffective schools could use this approach to hide the fact that students with limited English are falling behind or are being held to lower academic standards. "As a civil-rights institution, this concerns us greatly," Gonzalez said. "We don't want to take a step backwards. We want Latino kids to be able to compete to get into Harvard or Yale or Stanford."
Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of public policy for the American Association of School Administrators, which belongs to the liberal coalition of supporters of multiple measures that includes the League of United Latin American Citizens, isn't ready to defer to the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American fund over testing Hispanics with limited English. "In most cases we would defer to them, but in this case it's more complex," Hunter said. "It's not that the other argument is without merit. I have a high opinion of both of those groups. We just disagree."
Few education issues are more politically sensitive than performance pay: basing teachers' salaries on their students' test scores. The law now has a pilot program to encourage states and school districts to create local performance-pay programs, and the administration wants to expand it.
The NEA and the AFT adamantly oppose any federal requirements to tie teacher pay to test results, which they say is an unfair and unreliable way to measure performance that pits teacher against teacher and undermines the collaborative nature of teaching. They insist that teacher pay is a matter for local collective bargaining, not federal mandates.
Despite his staunchly pro-union record, Miller is proposing two new programs to pay bonuses to teachers in low-income schools based in part on their students' academic success. One would provide performance bonuses of as much as $10,000 for outstanding teachers and as much as $12,500 for the best instructors in math, science, special education, and other areas facing teacher shortages.
The other initiative would fund raises for teachers who pursue further education and assume greater responsibilities or leadership roles in their schools. It would also offer annual bonuses of as much as $4,000 for teachers who meet certain criteria. Both programs would use student test results to determine which teachers get the extra money, although the performance criteria in the first program must be developed "in collaboration with" the local teachers unions.
The unions are "very strongly opposed" to the programs, said Joel Packer, the NEA's director of education policy and practice. He said that the joint stance of the unions is, "Any federal program affecting the compensation and evaluation of teachers has to be subject to collective bargaining, or where collective bargaining doesn't exist, a majority vote of 65 to 75 percent [of teachers]. Don't force it on the teachers. Make sure they agree to it."
These programs could be deal-breakers for the unions. Tensions bubbled over at the September 10 hearing, as Miller and NEA President Reg Weaver traded accusations about whether the unions backed similar performance pay programs in a previous Miller bill.
Education activists who want the law to do more for low-income and minority children are just as adamant that rewarding teachers whose students improve academically is crucial to raising teacher quality, particularly for disadvantaged students.
The Education Trust's Wilkins hailed the bonus programs and other teacher placement initiatives in the House draft bill as "a declaration that needs of kids must come first when it comes to how we staff our schools."
Citing research showing that teacher quality is the biggest factor in a child's academic success and that poor and minority students are more likely to have inexperienced or less educated teachers than their wealthier peers, the Education Trust and its allies at the Center for American Progress and the Aspen Institute's Commission on No Child Left Behind contend that ensuring that disadvantaged children get better teachers is "the single most important civil-rights issue in education today," said Piche of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights.
Comparing Schools' Resources
Performance pay may be politically sensitive, but the obscure issue of "comparability" is downright radioactive because it concerns how much money teachers at different schools earn and where teachers are assigned to teach -- matters governed by local unions' collective-bargaining agreements.
Title I of the 1965 law gave schools extra federal money to better educate poor children. The comparability rule requires school districts to use their state and local dollars to give high-poverty schools that qualify for Title I assistance resources comparable to what wealthier schools get. That way, the federal money for poorer schools would truly be "extra," because it would come on top of a level playing field.
But the law excludes a major source of inequality between schools: teacher salaries. Schools in wealthier areas with higher-performing students, fewer behavior problems, and parents willing to underwrite extra programs attract more-experienced teachers with advanced degrees. And in many districts, teachers can use the seniority rights in their contracts to claim jobs in these more desirable schools. So the Title I schools wind up with less experienced teachers, or those with less training and education. It's hardly the level playing field envisioned by Title I.
Current law permits a school district whose teachers are paid according to a uniform salary schedule -- as most under union contract are -- to use an average of teacher salaries across the district rather than actual salaries at individual schools to show that it complies with the comparability rule. Advocates for disadvantaged students want to change the rule so that high-poverty schools get their fair share of experienced teachers. The Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, the Education Trust, and the Center for American Progress have long crusaded against the teacher salary exception, and they have made ending it central to their reauthorization agendas.
To ensure that state and local funding formulas are fair to high-poverty schools, the Miller-McKeon draft would require districts to use actual teacher salaries when calculating whether Title I and non-Title I schools get comparable resources from state and local sources. It would also mandate that school districts spend at least as much per pupil on teacher salaries at Title I schools as they do at wealthier schools.
School district officials and the unions fear that this requirement could lead to senior teachers being forced to transfer to Title I schools, which often have poor working conditions and more-challenging students to teach. Hunter of the school administrators group said that the new language could prove unworkable.
"You can't make people teach somewhere," he said. "We can assign people, but if they don't want to go where we assign them, they leave. Then we're missing a senior teacher." Hunter also questioned whether the federal government should get involved in locally negotiated matters. "Is it an appropriate federal role? Is it a judgment the federal government ought to make about how much you pay your teachers?"
Ultimately, education advocates across the Democratic ideological spectrum don't think that their differences will harm the party or the prospects for reauthorizating No Child Left Behind. And some are hopeful that a more tempered debate over what kind of education policy a Democratic president would pursue will be possible after the presidential primaries, which force candidates to play to the party's labor base.
"Different groups will have different things that they will prioritize differently," said Peter Zamora, Washington, D.C., regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "Democrats are going to have to thread the needle on this one. But at the end of the day, there's going to be enough support for enough of the different pieces that I would be surprised if we don't get a bill."
Hunter even considers the debate healthy. "Advocacy moves things forward. That's what makes policy interesting," he said. "It's OK to push and press because that forces you to think about how you solve your problem."
* Teachers unions, local officials, and some civil-rights advocates are under fire from fellow Democrats.
* "The road to the nomination is paved with [National Education Association] workers," says a critic of the influence that unions have had in the Democratic Party.
* Flash points: how to judge academic progress, pay outstanding teachers, and compare resources for schools.
The shortfall facing the education law, critics say.
Teacher PAC Contributions
The American Federation of Teachers (including its Los Angeles affiliate) ranked 15th in 2006 among political action committees in donations to federal candidates. The National Education Association's PAC wasn't among the top 20.
AFT $2.08 million $15,000
NEA $1.65 million $201,243
AFT $1.67 million $44,750
NEA $1.52 million $130,600
Source: Center for Responsive Politics
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES