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Study: Bureaucracy a barrier to ESEA goals

A new University of Colorado Denver study finds that the thicket of rules in the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act are a barrier to achieving the law’s goals of improving academic achievement.

The report, “Reauthorizing ESEA: A View from the West,” was done by UCD’s Buechner Institute for Governance and prompted some spirited comments during a panel discussion Friday morning.

The ESEA dates back to 1965, but its current version is the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which set a national goal of 100 percent student proficiency in reading and math by 2014.

Efforts to update the law have been stalled by partisan paralysis in Washington, and the Obama administration has gone around Congress by granting many states, including Colorado, waivers from some ESEA/NCLB requirements. The U.S. Department of Education recently announced a plan for renewing those waivers (see story).

A major overall conclusion of the report is that ESEA is weighed down by old “input” requirements — eligibility rules, formulas and record-keeping requirements – that are out of synch with the current educational emphasis on “outputs” – student achievement and school improvement.

“The act contains all these regulations that sometimes are in conflict with the goals we now have,” said Mary Wickersham, new director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis, part of the Buechner Institute.

She also remarked that ESEA was “designed for east coast states and not for a state like Colorado.” Its requirements are a particular burden on rural districts, she said.

Cindy Stevenson, Jefferson County superintendent, picked up on the same theme, saying, “We have a lot of time-consuming regulations that make no difference for children. … We need to get back to a focus on results.”

She also was critical of NCLB, saying, “The biggest impact is that it bred cynicism among teachers” because of its requirement of 100 student proficiency. “Unless you’re perfect you’re a loser. … We had years of damage done to teachers. We have a lot of healing to do.”

Elaine Gantz Berman, a member of the State Board of Education, noted that the Obama administration’s waiver policy has “given school districts a huge amount of flexibility.” That led her to pos the rhetorical question, “Do we even need reauthorization?” But she and the other three panelists agreed that the nation needs national educational goals.

The Republican-controlled U.S. House has passed an ESEA reauthorization proposal that would reduce the federal role and give more autonomy to states. A Democratic bill in the Senate would retain a strong federal role but hasn’t yet reached the floor.

Panelist Rosemary Rodriguez, who’s been state director for Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and who is running for a school board seat in Denver, said reconciling House and Senate version of the ESEA update “is going to be very hard because they are so different.”

Here are the key findings of the UCD report:

  • Districts want more flexibility in using federal funds, although some districts don’t take advantage of the flexibility they have now.
  • Rules for administering ESEA funds may be obsolete and/or out of line with the current emphases on student outcomes.
  • Districts are frustrated by current rigid requirements for setting aside funds for supplemental services such as outside tutoring.
  • Current funding for improving teacher quality is inadequate.
  • The administrative burden of ESEA funding is challenging, especially for smaller districts.
  • Funding for English language learners is contradictory, inflexible and underfunded.

The report recommends:

  • Entire rethinking of ESEA fiscal requirements.
  • Reduction of the general administrative burden associated with ESEA funding.
  • Increased state and district discretion on supplemental services.
  • Refocusing of teacher quality grants.
  • Revision of programs for English language learners.
  • Adjustments to meet the needs of rural districts.
  • Consider creation of pilot projects that would allow districts to gain greater flexibility and relief from administrative requirements in exchange for proven and sustained achievement gains for disadvantaged and under-performing students.

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