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Kline and Senate ally launching new push for NCLB overhaul and less federal oversight

Rep. John Kline
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig
The plan contemplated by Rep. John Kline and his Senate counterpart, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, would essentially do away with federal oversight of schools.

Another midterm, another turn of the worm.

Four years ago this space carried a story noting that Rep. John Kline’s appointment as chair of the U.S. House of Representatives’ powerful Education and the Workforce Committee made the Lakeville Republican a formidable — if loyal— opponent to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Alas, the personal relationship the two men enjoyed did nothing to stave off gridlock, and so no progress was made toward replacing No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which expired in 2007.

Two years later, of course, Duncan simply began end-running Congress, passing out waivers from compliance with NCLB’s most ill-conceived provisions to states willing to draft their own accountability plans.

Now, with his party’s much firmer grip on the House, Kline is rattling his saber again. The plan contemplated by him and his Senate counterpart, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, would essentially do away with federal oversight of schools.

Politico Pro has an excellent analysis of the push and all the attendant handicapping and Machiavellian intrigue, which I won’t reprise here. I commend it to you, though: It’s a good primer to what education policy debates will look like in the next few months.

I will leave you to your reading with a couple of observations, however. In case Politico doesn’t make this point forcefully enough, Kline likely can muster the votes to do whatever he wants in the House. In order to garner the votes necessary to prevent a Senate filibuster his team will need the support of six Democrats.

Which they just might get, given that a gutting of the law’s accountability provisions could drastically pare back the apples-to-apples tests schools are now required to administer. The country’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, has been pushing for this for years.

It’s not far-fetched to think the popular groundswell that talk of doing away with standardized tests is likely to conjure will make crossing the aisle more comfortable for some Democrats and a veto harder for President Barack Obama.

A second observation: It will be interesting to see the details of Kline’s proposal, given that his was a relatively moderate voice in education before he was confronted with his party’s Tea Party wing, which pushed him to consider some very extreme measures, such as abolishing the U.S. Department of Education altogether.

And finally, as much as NCLB was a train wreck, and as much as the public — if not necessarily scholars and policymakers  has come to believe that American schools are being crushed by tests, the 2002 reform did much to illuminate inequities.

A decade ago we did not have data that showed the size of the black-white achievement gap in Minnesota schools, the disparities in punitive and destructive discipline practices that push students out of school, and the hugely uneven distribution of teaching talent and resources.

If Obama, who has in the last year stepped up on the worst of these civil-rights issues, wants to keep the data that fuels the sense of urgency, he might want to consider how much influence over the narrative he has ceded. 

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Comments (6)

John Kline and Lamar Alexander

John Kline and Lamar Alexander--both strong advocates of privatizing education--are teaming up to eliminate federal oversight of education. Not funding, mind, just the oversight.

Am I the only one who has a bad feeling about this?

No, not the only one…

I'm ambivalent about federal oversight, but like RB Holbrook, when advocates of privatizing education – among the most pernicious of a long list of pernicious ideas from the right – start talking about ending federal oversight WITHOUT ending federal funding, I, too, have a bad feeling about the outcome. The possibilities and potential for truly large-scale fraud involving taxpayer dollars is staggering. What we already find at the local and state level is genuinely small potatoes compared to what might be if the dollars keep coming from Washington, but with only a "let the states decide" waving of the hand, we could all end up like Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, et al. It's not a reassuring scenario if "brainpower" is alleged to be among Minnesota's important assets.

Or even worse

Paying the education costs for southern states. Kline needs to be a target for defeat starting NOW.

NCLB was always a bad idea

And it made conservatives uncomfortable with George Bush for pushing it.

Conservatives for years had gone on record as saying the federal government should have no role in K-12 education, that the Department of Education should be abolished, and that all K-12 decisions should be local.

Along comes George Bush who, in the spirit of bi-partisanship, invites Ted Kennedy to write legislation that turns that idea on its head.

We bit our tongues because some of the ideas were good (standardized testing, holding teachers accountable, focusing on under-performing schools, etc.) but we didn't like the idea that the feds would be the ones to manage it.

John Kline now has an opening to do the right thing and the optimist in me says the dismantling of NCLB will be the first step in the process of abolishing the Department of Education.

Mr. Tester provides a list of

Mr. Tester provides a list of things "we" liked:....(standardized testing, holding teachers accountable, focusing on under-performing schools, etc.)....

As it works out, the goal of Klein and others is to push the spending and "accountability" down to the lowest level--the school district and even down into the individual schools.

At that point, the big money and political players in the education game (and there is a LOT of money and politics) have to only deal with the local-yokels and part-time school boards. Who will win the "expert" game?

Beyond that, without a national framework to judge against and to set uniform standards, what will the standard be--the best in a 3 school district? Somehow, I think the evasion of quality standards is made easier with the more fractured and factional system.

In the name of accountability, less accountability is achieved. The best performing school in your district may prepare you for little in life.

It is not a surprising goal for Klein who has served as a shill for the for-profit education industry and fought all measures that attempt to enforce standards, accountability and penalties for that industry.

Let the buyer beware.

Illuminating inequities

The second to last paragraph is where this piece lost credibility.

Minnesota had standardized testing long before NCLB, and was able to measure the acheivement gap. All NCLB did was apply arbitrary and methodologically worthless standards to punish teachers and schools for kids' poor performance on tests.

NCLB also didn't so much reveal gaps in teaching talent and resources as it exacerbated them. After NCLB and the rise of the corporate school "reform" movement, teachers were punished and their careers damaged by teaching at struggling schools. It has driven experienced teachers away from those schools.

Finally, the idea that its the discipline that causes kids not to gradauate requires a huge and unsupported leap from correlation to causation - a leap that is frequently made by corporate "reformers." I suspect that kids with behavior issues requiring discipline were not likely to graduate anyway. This issue is particularly sensitive for me as my child goes to a school where the principal was replaced and the discipline policy changed, and the result this year was chaos. If you take away the power to remove disruptive kids, all kids suffer for it.

NCLB, like the corporate school "reform" groups, was all about people who don't teach every day and don't understand what teaching entails thinking they know better than those who do. I sure don't trust Kline's motives here, but as far as the law itself, good riddance.