Your editor has spent way too much time already tearing apart Rick Hess’ and Michael Petrilli’s this week’s piece accusing fellow school reformers of race-baiting for raising concerns about efforts by congressional Republican powers John Kline and Lamar Alexander to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions. But there is another point to be made about the intellectual unseriousness of the two erstwhile conservative school reformers’ argument that No Child in particular — and the aggressive federal role in advancing systemic reform — is damaging to public education. And that lies with Hess’ and Petrilli’s silence about what to do about the compliance-oriented provisions of No Child — a legacy of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act — that should be eviscerated from the books.

wpid-threethoughslogoOne of those provisions is the mouthful of words called Supplement not supplant. Written into the original ESEA in 1966, the rule is geared toward keeping states and districts from using federal Title 1 dollars to subsidize the instruction and curricular activities they were already funding out of their own coffers. Because the purpose of Title 1 is to provide additional support for children from poor and minority backgrounds, any use of the subsidies for general school operations (including for kids from the middle class) is a violation of federal law.

While supplement not supplant made sense from a compliance perspective, the rule can end up complicating the work of reform-minded state and district school leaders (especially those who are implementing programs approved by the Obama Administration under Race to the Top). More than a decade ago in New York City, concerns from Empire State officials about violating supplement not supplant led then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and now-former Chancellor Joel Klein to drop plans to implement a weighted student funding formula. The law’s complexity ends also leads to such perverse actions by district such as using Title 1 dollars to finance field trips instead of improving student achievement. Just as importantly, given the shoddy nature of most school district accounting systems and the murky nature of school finance, and there is little way that any district doesn’t end up in violation of federal law.

Districts, policy wonks, and others have long talked about the need to get rid of supplement not supplant. It isn’t the only non-accountability aspect of No Child that needs to be tossed asunder. Your editor has long criticized the law’s Highly Qualified Effective Teacher provision for being a rather wishy-washy element that merely allowed states and districts to simply allow laggard teachers to keep their jobs by magically certifying them as high quality. Since the provision didn’t require the use of student test data in measuring teacher quality (focusing instead on certification and other qualifications that have no positive correlation to student achievement), it should be removed from the law.

As I wrote yesterday, the federal role in education policy, especially in advancing systemic reform, has been positive on balance. But it doesn’t mean it is unquestionably so. The compliance aspects of federal law, which has never worked as a form of accountability (and was never designed for that purpose) is one aspect of the federal role that can be eliminated. In fact, doing so would make the federal government even more-effective than it has been in supporting efforts on the ground to transform public education.

Yet as I noted more than a year ago, there has been little effort on the part of districts, wonks, or policymakers to get rid of the legacy compliance rules embedded within No Child and other federal education laws. The plan for reauthorizing the law put out this week by Alexander, the overlord of the Senate’s education committee, would only modify supplement not supplant. [It does propose to eliminate HQET.] Other plans offered up by congressional Republicans and their Democrat counterparts haven’t even broached the subject.

While Hess has occasionally mentioned supplement not supplant as an issue, neither he nor Petrilli said much about it in their piece. They did spend plenty of time attacking the aspects of No Child (and the federal role in education policy) that actually focus on helping all kids succeed.

Why? Because for all the complaints about supplement not supplant and HQET, these are compliance matters for which districts and states have long ago developed processes to address. In fact, states and districts have successfully convinced Congress to grant exemptions to HQET, especially when it comes to hiring Teach For America recruits to work in classrooms. The fact that few districts and states are ever dinged for non-compliance — and even less media coverage of those incidents when the Department of Education gets around to catching them — makes them non-factors at all.

What is far more concerning to these folks is the embarrassment that comes from No Child’s accountability provisions, especially those forcing them to show Adequate Yearly Progress for improving the achievement of poor and minority children (as well as those in special education ghettos). The very revelations of how poorly districts and states were doing in improving the achievement of children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — since the implementation of No Child 12 years ago have embarrassed states and districts publicly and badly. So have the research and news stories that have revealed how states and districts inflated graduation rates and concealed the true numbers of children dropping out into poverty and prison.

More importantly, the accountability provisions have proven to be useful to reformers, as well as reform-minded policymakers, researchers, and families in advancing the systemic overhaul of American public education. As I pointed out yesterday, the accountability provisions have spurred the expansion of school choice (including public charter schools, vouchers, and tax credit programs) that have helped kids from poor and minority households escape failure mills. The law has also forced states to pay more attention to the plight of kids condemned to special ed ghettos.

Particularly for suburban districts such as those in Minnesota represented by Kline and Alexander who oppose expansion of choice and benefit from putting kids they don’t want to teach into special ed, the light shined on their failures as result of No Child have been anything but welcomed. So for these districts and their respective states, especially those in the Beltway where Hess and Petrilli live, there is greater motivation to eviscerate the accountability provisions (and go back to ignoring poor and minority kids) than to get rid of the compliance rules that actually get in the way of systemic reform.

Given these realities, it makes you wonder if Hess and Petrilli merely want to eviscerate No Child because of any true concerns about the federal role.