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By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times (TNS)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Lamar Alexander earlier this month announced a symbolic breakthrough in the decadelong ideological wrangling over how to rewrite the nation’s chief education law.

Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate committee working to renew the law known as No Child Left Behind, agreed to scrap his own proposed bill in favor of a new version he would craft with Murray, the committee’s ranking Democrat.

Yet the promise of a bipartisan first draft — and quickening momentum that Congress may pass a reauthorization that is seven years overdue — has only heightened the political fissures.
Leaders of three national civil rights organizations on Feb. 10 said they will oppose any reauthorization that they say would shortchange students who are nonwhite, poor, English learners or otherwise disadvantaged.

The next day, a House committee passed a No Child bill modeled on a version the Republican-controlled House passed in 2013 without a single Democratic vote. The White House opposes the House bill, in part because it could divert federal Title 1 money earmarked for poor students to wealthier districts.

Meanwhile, opponents of annual standardized testing, led by teachers unions and some parents, are lobbying to roll back what they call “overuse and misuse” of test scores as a proxy for education quality. Instead, the National Education Association, for one, is asking the federal government to adopt a new “accountability system” that tracks access to counselors, advanced courses, qualified teachers and other elements that can influence a student’s success in school.

But business and civil rights groups and school superintendents are stepping up their support of the testing regime. Last month, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and four other organizations wrote Alexander and Murray calling annual assessments an “absolute necessity.” They urged Congress to keep the current schedule of math and reading tests each year from third to eighth grades and once in high school.

Much of the political swirl is centered on Alexander and Murray. The son of two educators, Alexander served as secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. Since taking the helm of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in January, Alexander has zeroed in on reauthorizing No Child, officially called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Murray once taught preschool in Bothell, Wash., before running for Congress. She has made boosting education spending, especially for prekindergarten children, a legislative hallmark.

Though Murray’s party lost majority control of the Senate in the November elections, Alexander needs to sway at least six Democrats behind his No Child legislation in order to gain 60 votes needed to ward off a filibuster.

Any accord between Alexander and Murray, however, would have to reconcile their clashing views on the federal government’s role in education.

Murray believes the federal government — which put up $61 billion, or 10 percent, of the cost of educating public elementary and secondary students in fiscal 2012 — has the right to demand accountability from local schools. The federal government, she said recently, “has an important and unique role to play” to ensure quality education, particularly for lower-achieving students.

Murray opposes scaling back the number of mandatory federal tests. They total 17 tests, including one science assessment in elementary, middle and high school, spread out over ten years. Those are on top of exams imposed by states or school districts, including those required for graduation.

The House version of No Child Left Behind also would keep the current testing schedule, with support from Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).

Many teachers, however, are skeptical that the testing regiment has had much to do with the slow but steady rise in scores on standardized math and reading tests over the past decade.
Stephen Miller, vice president of the Washington Education Association, believes overuse of tests has subverted the very reasons President Lyndon Johnson signed an education law in 1965: to equalize access to good public education for all American children.

Miller contends the focus and preparations for tests on core subjects like math and science have crowded out physical education, music and other programs that most help lagging students stay engaged in school.

“We’ve been testing too much and not teaching enough,” said Miller, a former Bellevue School District social-studies teacher in Washington state.

Before Alexander agreed to let Murray co-author the No Child bill, he floated the option of leaving decisions on testing up to the states. That alarmed testing advocates, who say tracking progress for specific groups of students is possible only with annual testing.

“The Alexander draft would actually allow districts to have their own set of tests, so a student who was proficient in Spokane might not be proficient in Seattle, or vice versa,” said Chad Aldeman, associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting firm.

Another flashpoint is the Obama administration’s push to link test scores to teacher evaluations.

Randy Dorn, Washington state’s superintendent of public instruction, said the controversy over teacher evaluations has been “blown out of proportion.” Dorn said discerning principals can identify good teachers after 15 minutes of observations. He said that should be the main basis of grading any teacher.

Nonetheless, Dorn said, test scores also reveal something about teachers’ contributions, and they “should be an indicator” used in overall evaluations.

Murray has echoed similar views. Speaking at a HELP committee hearing in January, she said gauging teachers’ quality should be based on different measurements. But Murray said she was wary of using those measurements as “the sole factor in setting salaries or using testing as the sole indicator in an evaluation.”

Photo: Senate Democrats via Flickr


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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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By Rami Ayyub and Alexandra Ulmer

(Reuters) -The prosecutor for Georgia's biggest county on Thursday requested a special grand jury with subpoena power to aid her investigation into then-President Donald Trump's efforts to influence the U.S. state's 2020 election results.

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