Bipartisan Senate Education Bill May Advance Evidence-based Policy

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced a bipartisan bill yesterday that, if enacted, would substantially rework the nation’s principal K-12 education law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and may pave the way for significant advances for evidence-based policy in education. The bill is expected to be considered in the Senate HELP Committee on April 14.

Overall, the Alexander-Murray bill would shift significant responsibility for education back to the states and to local school districts, substantially reversing accountability measures that have been a hallmark of NCLB. Under current law, an increasing number of schools have been deemed to be in need of improvement under federal standards, forcing states to apply for federal waivers approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

The proposed bill would end the existing federal test-based accountability system and largely eliminate the Department of Education’s authority to approve state actions. However the bill, along with a combination of amendments that are expected to be offered in committee, is expected to bolster evidence-based education policies in a variety of other ways.

  • Education Innovation and Research: While the Alexander-Murray bill does not currently include language authorizing the Obama administration’s signature evidence-based initiative, the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3), congressional staff from both parties have reportedly been working on a bipartisan innovation amendment. The amendment, which is expected to be offered by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Michael Bennet (D-CO), would reportedly replace the federal i3 concept with a newer, bottom-up initiative based on a proposal from the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy that would subject field-initiated innovations to increasing levels of rigorous evaluation as they expand from an initial proof-of-concept stage to wider implementation. “We can help provide the preconditions for success by providing incentives for educators on the ground to apply their own creative thinking to address our most persistent education problems,” said Sen. Bennet. (Related: i3’s Fate Tied to NCLB Reauthorization).
  • Evaluation Set-aside: According to Results for America, which has also been working to support the bill’s evidence-based provisions, the current bill allows the Secretary of Education to set aside up to 0.5% of the bill’s program funds for evaluations, including for the first time Title III language instruction for limited English proficient and immigrant students. The Department of Labor has similar authority. The bill also allows the Secretary to pool funds across programs. Neither provision is entirely new, even for education programs. The National Board for Education Sciences endorsed the set-aside concept in 2006 and a more limited version exists in current law. The pooling provision was previously included in annual appropriations bills.
  • Pay-for-Success: The bill makes pay-for-success an allowable use for Title I, Part D funds ($47.6 million in FY 2015) for children and youth who are neglected, delinquent or at-risk (Sec. 1011). It also authorizes pay-for-success as an allowable use of funds under Title IV, which funds programs addressing student health and safety (Sec. 4105). America Forward, a coalition of organizations supporting evidence and innovation, was among those supporting the pay-for-success provisions. “Opening up ESEA to pay-for-success initiatives will help schools and their partners leverage data and evidence to get better results, measurably improve student outcomes, and maximize the impact of federal resources,” said Lexi Barrett, policy director for the organization.
  • Evidence in Formula-funded Programs: According to a Results for America analysis, the bill strengthens the use of evidence-based programs in both formula and non-formula grants, using the term “evidence-based” 30 times in a variety of contexts.  “The evidence-based definition and its strategic use, particularly in Titles I and II, will help drive the demand for and use of evidence-based strategies, practices and programs, which ultimately leads to better student outcomes,” said Michele McLaughlin, president of the Knowledge Alliance, a coalition of education organizations that has been working to support innovation in education.
  • School Improvement Grants: Consistent with its overall shift of authority to states, the Alexander-Murray draft eliminates the school improvement grants program, which funds a variety of federally-prescribed school-based reforms, but it retains funding for school improvement at the state and local level.  According to the bill’s press release “school districts will be responsible for designing evidence-based interventions for low performing schools, with technical assistance from the states, and the federal government is prohibited from mandating, prescribing, or defining the specific steps school districts and states must take to improve those schools.”

Alexander and Murray, the HELP Committee’s chairman and senior Democrat respectively, hope to move the bill through committee relatively quickly and to have it on the Senate floor sometime later this spring. Fearing potential politicization, Alexander has said he would like to complete action before the 2016 presidential race begins in earnest. Efforts to fast-track the bill may run aground in the House, however, where a similar bill was pulled from the floor due to partisan disagreements in February.

The overall bill was welcomed by the Obama administration. “Today’s announcement is an important step toward what I hope will be a bipartisan solution – in the Senate and the House –  to fixing the No Child Left Behind Act, and I greatly appreciate Sen. Alexander’s and Sen. Murray’s leadership in that effort,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan shortly after the legislation was released. Duncan went on to say that the bill should support innovative and evidence-based efforts in education.


This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.