As Congress moves toward reauthorizing the country's K-12 education law, the Left remains divided over how to hold schools accountable, with the nation's largest teachers' union bitterly opposing an amendment backed by the Obama administration that would have required states to design goals for subgroups of students.
The day before the Senate passed its version of the bill Thursday with broad bipartisan support, lawmakers shot down an amendment that would have required states to identify the lowest-performing schools and schools where subgroups of students—for example, those with disabilities or English-language learners—are failing to meet goals, and then create a plan to help them improve.
The measure, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy, Cory Booker, Dick Durbin, Elizabeth Warren, and Christopher Coons, was endorsed by the White House and the Education Department, but failed to meet a 60-vote threshold by a vote of 43-54, with all Republicans except Sen. Rob Portman opposed.
Some advocates are placing blame with the National Education Association, one of the country's two main teachers' unions. The group opposed the measure vocally and issued a threat that the vote would be included in the group's report card. While all but two Democratic senators threw their weight behind the amendment, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Jon Tester opposed it.
"We were incredibly happy to see that all but two Democrats and one Republican voted for stronger accountability," said Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy for The Education Trust, a nonprofit that supported the amendment, "especially in the face of such a full-on attack by the NEA."
While the Obama administration released a policy statement urging accountability measures "that would strengthen school accountability to close troubling achievement and opportunity gaps, including by requiring interventions and supports in the lowest-performing five percent of schools, in other schools where subgroups of students are not achieving, and in high schools where too many students do not graduate," the NEA said in a statement that the amendment would "continue the narrow and punitive focus of [No Child Left Behind] and over identify schools in need of improvement."
"That was absolutely going to set us way back," NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia told Next America. "We were not going to let that happen."
Garcia says her group does want to know how kids are doing, but that standardized tests aren't the way to do it.
The nation's other main teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers, had remained neutral.
While the unions are typically strong Democratic supporters, the NEA was concerned that the accountability amendment would mark a whole school as in need of intervention if a single subgroup failed to meet targets. The group equated the measure to the much-maligned Adequate Yearly Progress provision in 2001's No Child Left Behind.
"ESEA is a civil-rights bill, it's not just about education." —Leticia Bustillos, associate director of NCLR's Education Policy Project
But civil-rights groups, including the Hispanic Education Coalition and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), one of the nation's largest Hispanic advocacy organizations, backed the amendment, calling it necessary to protect today's wide spectrum of students and seeing it as a way to limit the opportunity gap between those with access to resources and those without.
In a letter to Congress, the coalition said: "The Murphy amendment ensures that if Latinos or English-learners do not meet state set goals for two continuous years, then locally-designed, evidence-based supports must be given to help improve the education of those groups. ... The Murphy amendment brings us one step closer to ensuring subgroup accountability. ... Without this protection, and inclusion of our other Latino priorities, the [Every Child Achieves Act] should not become law."
The NAACP had also expressed its support for stronger accountability measures.
Like the NEA, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of Latino advocacy groups, said it would include the vote on its scorecards of members' support for the Latino community.
"ESEA is a civil-rights bill, it's not just about education," said Leticia Bustillos, associate director of NCLR's Education Policy Project, using the acronym for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the name of the original federal education bill, signed into law in the mid-1960s by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Bustillos added that, while she's pleased to see provisions for English-language learners make the cut, she's "disappointed by the fact that critical provisions in accountability are in fact lacking."
She hit back at the NEA's claims that the accountability measures supported by the White House represent a return to the No Child Left Behind era.
"It definitely wasn't welcome," she said of the group's opposition. "This is not test-and-punish."
While the amendment failed, its proponents did score something of a victory when Republican Sen. Mike Lee's opt-out bill, which would have allowed families to opt out of assessments, failed to move forward.
That bill, groups like The Education Trust said, could have seriously compromised the quality of assessment data, thereby limiting the ability to implement clear accountability measures.
Still, Democrats were pleased with the 43 votes in favor, saying it was a clear showing that accountability will be a critical topic as the bill goes to conference. With some Republicans likely to oppose the final bill, Democrats are hopeful they can block a bill without more accountability from making it out of conference.
"This sets us up well for conference," Hall said.
Already, the senators who had supported the amendment have cautioned that they intend to continue to try to bolster accountability.
"I will not support the final bill unless accountability provisions are strengthened in negotiations between the House and Senate," Sen. Coons said in a statement.
"Sen. Booker is disappointed that the Senate didn't approve the Murphy-Booker accountability amendment and that the final bill does not do enough to protect kids in underperforming schools," said Monique Waters, Booker's spokeswoman, in a statement. "There are more steps in the legislative process to improve this bill and ensure it helps all of our children reach their full potential. He will keep working to improve this bill."
Education Secretary Arne Duncan hailed the bill's passage in a statement, but said it fell short on accountability and that he looked forward to working with lawmakers to "strengthen the bill before it reaches the President's desk.
"We cannot tolerate continued indifference to the lowest performing schools, achievement gaps that let some students fall behind, or high schools where huge numbers of students never make it to graduation," Duncan said.
And accountability advocates have vowed to continue their fight for stronger measures as the bill heads to conference.
"I'm hopeful that in conference, there will be additional changes," said Carmel Martin, executive vice president for policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
While Martin acknowledges that the NEA's opposition might have had some impact, accountability, she said, "is something that is very important to the civil-rights community, and I think that was very influential with the Democratic caucus."
The biggest obstacle, Democrats across the board say, will be reconciling the House's much more conservative version with the Senate bill. No Democrats in the House supported that bill.
"I think the bigger question mark here is whether [House Speaker John Boehner] will allow the Democrats in the House to have a voice in conference," Martin said.
Advocates of a stronger accountability measure say they can't imagine President Obama signing a bill without them, but several have privately worried that it is a real possibility.
Still, many, including Bustillos, are hopeful.
"The signal we've received from the White House is that accountability is important, meaningful accountability is important," she said. "I think what we're asking for is in alignment with what we're hearing from the White House."
Broadly, there is optimism that a reauthorization will happen, something that for years seemed implausible. States and local communities are weary from years of dealing with fragmented No Child Left Behind policies and waivers, and appetite for reform is widespread.