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Kline tackling NCLB renewal in piecemeal fashion

The bill that Rep. John Kline’s panel approved Wednesday contemplates sweeping changes in the federal government’s ability to oversee states’ and school districts’ spending.

Rep. John Kline
Rep. John Kline

Wednesday morning, Rep. John Kline gaveled open the first vote on the State and Local Funding Flexibility Act. You might think that for the Minnesota Republican whose education policy mantra has been “local, local, local,” marking up a bill that would curtain federal oversight of school finances would be a triumphant moment.

The bill did pass out of the House committee on a party-line vote, but it was hardly the kind of lock-step victory many envisioned when Kline was selected as chair of the U.S House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee last fall.

Even a couple of months ago, Kline’s power to shape the next version of the law that drives the national education reform effort seemed potentially limitless. With a solid GOP majority in the House, a growing number of philosophical bedfellows on the other side of the aisle and an education secretary who shared many of his views, what couldn’t he accomplish?

Indeed both Kline and Education Secretary Arne Duncan seemed confident they could quickly work through the issues raised by this year’s expiration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known at the moment as No Child Left Behind. In recent weeks, however, the only thing that the two men have agreed upon publicly is that the education of children is, generally speaking, a good thing.

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Duncan sought package by fall
As schools let out for the summer across the country, Duncan began talking about the consequences to schools if the soup-to-nuts reform package was not finalized by the time pupils return in the fall. “We desperately want to see this done before schools go back in the fall,” he said, according to this Education Week story. “This can’t be done on Washington time. It needs to happen on real people’s time.”

To which Kline replied categorically, no way. He preferred to tackle its renewal piecemeal, and to take his time; the complex package of policies would suffer if given an “arbitrary deadline.”

In response to that, Duncan suddenly revealed himself much more Machiavellian than his boss by locating what he claims is the legal authority to end-run NCLB.

In June, he announced that he would begin entertaining requests for waivers from NCLB from states that were unfairly being penalized by the law. Applicants would have to agree to a “basket” of unspecified reforms — to be decided upon by the department and not Kline’s committee.

On June 23, Kline sent a letter [PDF] to Duncan outlining the importance of a quality education and demanding answers to a series of questions about how the waiver process would work by July 1. On July 6, Duncan sent back a letter [PDF] agreeing that a world-class education was crucial to the health of the nation, which is why it perplexed him that Kline et. al. seemed to be dragging their feet.

The secretary did not address the particulars of how the waivers would work and what reforms Duncan would ask for in exchange. (Nor did he immediately start handing them out; on the contrary, he’s poised to sanction Montana.)

Bill contains sweeping changes
Why the brinksmanship? The bill Kline’s committee approved yesterday [PDF] contemplates sweeping changes in the federal government’s ability to oversee states’ and school districts’ spending. Educators have long complained that federal regulations in general and NCLB in particular make it tough for them to spend their money where it’s needed most.

Sec. Arne Duncan
MinnPost/James Nord
Sec. Arne Duncan

More and more school budgets are made up of funds that are tied to particular programs or curricular goals. Without more discretion, they are not able to live up to federal accountability targets. This is one reason educators privately grouse about Duncan, whose love of tying competitive grants to specific innovations doesn’t help as much as more general-use dollars.

Democrats, including the ranking member of Kline’s committee, California’s George Miller, agree. But they caution that doing away with federal oversights altogether presents civil-rights challenges as it would free districts from having to spend certain funds — Title I money for impoverished children, special-ed reimbursement and English-language-learner funds, for example — on disadvantaged kids.

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Kline had a couple of reasons for pursing a smaller federal role. For starters, he is a staunch believer in local control, as are many education advocates, regardless of their politics.

Lakeville’s hurdles
On top of that, there are buildings in his home district of Lakeville that are poster programs for the real problems NCLB presents for a growing number of U.S. schools. The district is wealthier than many hereabouts and graduates virtually all of its high schoolers, but faces numerous hurdles to being able to continue making “adequate yearly progress” as defined by the law.

Former Lakeville Superintendent Gary Amoroso, now head of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, appeared before the House committee in April at Kline’s invitation, only to find himself peppered by ideologically charged questions from three sides.

Lakeville, he told the lawmakers [PDF], needs greater flexibility in budgeting at the local level and a shift away from the unhelpful standardized tests prescribed by NCLB. That didn’t mean he wanted an end to the requirements that the district account for its spending and its performance, he added. Better to move to growth-model tests and more tailored spending.

Some of the representatives grilling Amoroso wanted to know what he would do if Washington simply mailed him a check. Wouldn’t everyone be better off if the Education Department and its pesky rulemaking just went away?

“We have so many areas that we are already taxing within our local area that I don’t believe the federal government needs to be totally out of the picture,” Amoroso replied. “I think the federal government has a responsibility to ensure equity, access for all children. …

“What I would like to have you consider is with whatever funding you feel is appropriate to move forward with the reauthorization, that it be more of a formula-based process versus a grant process, whether it be Race to the Top, or whether it be any other type of grant program,” he continued. “Not all of us, whether it be a state, whether it be a particular district, will have a level playing field in applying for those grants. So I would prefer us to have the conversation about formula.”

The Tea Party faction
If doing away with the DOE sounds incredible, it’s not the first time the idea has been floated. The murmuring coming from Kline’s office is he’s not prepared to declare that kind of war on the department but he’s having a hard time getting the members of his committee, many of them freshman Tea Partiers who eschew any federal role in education, to fall into line.

(There are lobbyists who suspect shuttering the DOE isn’t such a high Tea Party priority, but that talking about it does allow Kline to both position himself as moderate and paint Duncan as unreasonable.)

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Lakeville has every reason to chime in on the debate over federal control, but other Twin Cities districts stand to lose a lot more. Great City Schools, an organization representing urban districts around the country, noted in a letter to Kline [PDF] that ensuring equity in education has to be a federal responsibility.

The unlevel playing field
No one likes the current amount of red tape, Executive Director Michael Casserley said in a letter to Kline. But local control does little to level the playing field between wealthy students and poor ones.

“Helping to overcome the persistent achievement gaps experienced by poor, minority, language minority, and disabled students is the primary reason for federal aid to schools, and a critical factor in building the economic security of the nation,” Casserley wrote.

“In the declining financial condition of most of the nation’s public school systems, the flexibility bill could allow ESEA funds to be used to offset cuts in multiple areas of general school operations, instead of for the intended supplemental uses.”

Indeed, last week on former Education Secretary Bill Bennett’s radio show, “Morning in America,” Kline cited a district that might want to use English-language-learner money to upgrade computer equipment for all students as a desirable type of flexibility.