The White House proposal to rewrite the education law faced its first major test Wednesday as Education Secretary Arne Duncan defended the plan before two congressional committees. Lawmakers raised concerns about requiring low-performing schools to replace their staffs and a switch to competitive grants for federal money.
The White House proposal to rewrite No Child Left Behind faced its first major test Wednesday as Education Secretary Arne Duncan defended the plan before two congressional committees: Some of the biggest concerns about the proposed rewrite came from Democrats.
Duncan found few defenders of the law. Many in Congress share his concern that it has helped turn many schools into testing mills.
"It encourages a narrowing of the curriculum and focuses on test preparation," Duncan said. "It labels too many schools with the same failing label regardless of their challenges."
But the proposal announced by President Obama over the weekend has already run into a buzz saw of criticism. Senators on the Education and Labor Committee raised concerns about proposed requirements that low-performing schools replace their staffs.
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) told Duncan the models the administration has proposed for remaking schools won't work in his rural state.
"Many of the rural school districts are unable to implement, I don't think, any of the four models because it's difficult to replace the principal, fire half the staff, close the school or convert the school to a charter school when the next-closest school is over 60 miles away," Enzi said.
School administrators have raised similar concerns, saying the proposal would essentially place the lowest-performing schools under federal control. Duncan insisted No Child Left Behind 2.0 offers plenty of flexibility.
Many Democrats are also worried about new mandates that would make states compete for a growing share of federal money.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) said she is worried that her state will lose grants that support better teacher evaluations. Duncan said the switch to competitive grants is supposed to force change on a broken system.
"But honestly what we don't want to do is continue to fund the status quo," Duncan said. "When it doesn't work for any adult, it's not working for children, either."
Murray said: "I can understand requiring states to undertake activities to improve their teacher quality grants. But if we make this into a winner-loser competitive thing, we're going to create a bigger gap."
If successful states get financial rewards, she said, they will pull further ahead of struggling states.
The pressure to improve teacher evaluations is something both parties are worried about. Republicans charged that the requirement would simply detract from state efforts to improve teaching. Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma pointed to a proposed requirement that states develop definitions for effective teachers and principals.
"That's another Washington mandate that we're going to develop ... and we're going to say whether you're going to measure it, when, in fact, outcomes are what count," Coburn said.
As Duncan testified, headlines flashed about more schools closing in Detroit and schools nationwide facing catastrophic funding cuts. Many schools say they are worried about adapting to new federal rules while old economic pressures continue to mount.
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