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New House Education Committee Holds First Hearing on ESEA

The new website for the now Health, Education & Workforce Committee presents the Republican vision for K-12 education:

To ensure student success in the 21st century, Republicans are focused doing on what’s best for students, parents, teachers, and communities. This means helping children achieve their full and unique potential by equipping them with the tools and knowledge to succeed in the 21st century and ensuring America’s educational system is the best in the world.

To accomplish these objectives, Republicans believe Congress must:

  • Restore local control,
  • Empower parents,
  • Let teachers teach, and
  • Protect taxpayers.

These principles will guide Republican efforts to reform federal education policy and protect the rights and responsibilities of states and local communities when it comes to educating the next generation.

Last week, as democracy blossomed in Egypt, we got our first glimpse of what to expect for education from the new House majority. The gulf between rhetoric and reality will widen very swiftly.

The first hearing was much-anticipated by the Washington inner circle as the first opportunity to sense where things might be going. I suspended my disbelief momentarily when I read the subject for the hearing: “Education in the Nation: Examining the Challenges and Opportunities Facing America’s Classrooms”

Think for a moment what you believe are the greatest “challenges and opportunities facing your classroom. Now draw up a list of four or five experts who might help Congress confront the needs of America’s classrooms. Here’s the list of the panel of experts – three chosen by the Republicans and one by the Democrats.

Dr. Tony Bennett
Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction
Indiana Department of Education
Indianapolis, IN Lisa Graham Keegan
Education Breakthrough Network
Phoenix, AZ

Andrew Coulson
Center for Educational Freedom, CATO Institute
Seattle, WA

Ted Mitchell
President and CEO
NewSchools Venture Fund
San Francisco, CA

The Democrats’ selection is not entirely obvious. You might suspect it to be the new state superintendent from Indiana – at least he has a direct connection to the classroom. But you’d be wrong; actually Ted Mitchell was their choice.

Lisa Graham Keegan is a former state superintendent from Arizona during whose tenure a huge number of charter schools came into being. She is a thorough-going market force type and choice is her mantra. While state superintendent she formed a group of like-minded state superintendents to promote market-oriented solutions.

The Cato Institute is a libertarian Washington think tank. Coulson presented the committee with a summary of the federal government’s Return on Investment since 1965. According to Mr. Coulson,

“…we have little to show for the $2 trillion in federal education spending of the past half century. In the face of concerted and unflagging efforts by Congress and the states, public schooling has suffered a massive productivity collapse – it now costs three times as much to provide essentially the same education as we provided in 1970.”

He did go on in his closing remarks to point to one successful federal program – The Opportunity Scholarship Program, the DC voucher program eliminated by the last Congress. He reminded the members of the committee ( the majority of whom carry a copy of the Constitution in their pockets ) that the Constitution does not confer any power to the Congress to set national education policy. In essence, he recommended that Congress could spread educational excellence “by phasing out its vast array of ineffective programs” and encouraging the spread of “Opportunity Scholarships” allowing for an annual tax cut on the order of $70 billion presumably by the phasing out of public education. As extreme as his message is, his analysis will have great resonance with many members of Congress particularly those who arrived with a mandate from the Tea Party.

In his introductory comments Chairman Kline stated that, “… since 1980 education spending has increased by 425%, yet student achievement has failed to improve.” He said, “It is time we stopped measuring our commitment to education by the dollars we spend.” Reinforcing the “money is not the answer” message it seems was the price of admission for this panel. Even Dr. Bennet did his part when he told the committee, We must fundamentally change the conversation from “how do we get more money?” to “How do we get more education for our money?”

The hearing process in Congress is more often than not about confirming and solidifying positions held by the leadership rather than a search for truth. This hearing was no different. What Chairman Kline believes and to a certain extent the beliefs of his predecessor, George Miller, will drive the work of the committee.

Chairman Kline still believes in local control, that there is already too much money in the system, and that the accountability system in NCLB is broken and in need of a fix – think “growth model”. George Miller will likely pursue the teacher quality issue which has morphed into teacher effectiveness and promises that teacher evaluation will be dealt with in this reauthorization.

On the reality side over the weekend the list of Republican proposed cuts in education was released. According to Alison Klein at EdWeek, Joel Packer, former NEA chief lobbyist characterized this proposal thusly “This absolutely would be the largest cuts ever in history for education programs,”(see House GOP Looks to Slash Education Spending) If successful these cuts – nearly $4.9 Billion – would be implemented in the remaining four months of this fiscal year.

This morning the president formally released his budget proposal for FY 2012. Chairman Kline issued the following statement in reaction to the Obama proposal for education:

“Over the last 45 years we have increased our investment in education, but the return on that investment has failed to improve student achievement. Throwing more money at our nation’s broken education system ignores reality and does a disservice to students and taxpayers. A recent hearing highlighted a number of innovative solutions underway at the state and local level that are producing real results on behalf of students and parents. It is time we asked why increasing the federal government’s role in education has failed to improve student achievement. I look forward to charting a new course in education that ensures Washington doesn’t stand in the way of meaningful state and local reforms.

Echoes of the first hearing???

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