WASHINGTON -- Congress is gearing up to pass the first major education reform bill since the much-reviled 2001 No Child Left Behind Act -- a move that would grant Alaska considerably greater control over the state's schools, from testing to curriculum.
"For Alaskans that have long felt that for 14 or 15 years having Washington, D.C., basically be the national school board is a bad idea … this is the change that they've been waiting for," said Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. "This really gives the flexibility back to the states, back to the communities, back to the local school boards. And I think it does so in a way that really does allow every child to achieve."
If passed as expected, the legislation is intended to usher in a new system of local control: The state of Alaska will get to choose its own performance goals, testing plans, and standards for teachers. It won't eliminate national data-gathering on student performance, but smaller, rural schools are likely to avoid some of the pitfalls of being lumped in with stricter performance measures that make more sense for areas with larger populations.
Murkowski, a Republican, was selected as a member of the House and Senate conference committee. The bicameral group completed negotiations over the bill just before leaving for Thanksgiving break, four months after education reform bills passed both chambers this summer.
The final draft will not be released to the public until Nov. 30, days before the House is expected to vote on it, but Murkowski offered some insights into its contents in an interview with Alaska Dispatch News.
"I think the take-away for Alaskans is that this education reform allows for greater local control, but much more flexibility to the schools and to the school districts themselves," Murkowski said.
The bill moved out of the conference committee with 11 amendments and near unanimous approval and is expected to go for a vote on the House floor "that first week we're back in December, and then we'll be able to take it up here," Murkowski said.
No Child Left Behind tied school performance to funding, and let loose a long stream of consequences that have rankled many in Alaska and Outside for years. In 2011, the Obama administration announced a waiver program for states that couldn't make the grade -- often in exchange for adopting the widely disliked Common Core education standards.
Handing out waivers where states could not meet standards is "not fixing it. That's not helping the kids. That's not allowing for accountability," Murkowski said.
Alaska is one of more than 30 states to receive a waiver from No Child Left Behind standards, though the state didn't adopt Common Core, instead embarking on a years-long process to set federally approved standards for accountability, and crafting its own state testing system -- "Alaska Measures Progress."
This summer the U.S. Education Department approved a three-year extension on Alaska's waiver. States with waivers implement English and math standards, agree to evaluate teachers and develop systems for holding schools accountable for students' success. In exchange they lose funding restrictions placed on underperforming schools.
There are roughly 130,000 Alaskan children in preschool through 12th grade, and recent statistics show wide achievement gaps between white and Alaska Native students. Only 7 percent of Alaska Native fourth-graders were proficient in reading, compared to 41 percent of white students in the state, according to the 2013 national assessment.
"Alaska is a state of contrasts. It is the largest state, with a very small population. It is a young state with a long history of indigenous cultures. It is a land of opportunity that faces extreme climatic and geographic conditions. Although Alaska delivers educational services to remote villages and modern urban population centers, we demand first-class educational opportunity for all children," the state said in its application for the waiver approved this summer, which included hundreds of pages of plans to meet federal requirements.
With the new legislation, the unmet nationally set expectations for closing achievement gaps will be tossed, and states can pick their own goals. Alaska will have to focus on schools in the bottom 5 percent, performance-wise, and intervene in schools with low graduation rates.
But Murkowski said she has been working with the conference committee to make sure the new law's requirements won't have a negative impact on rural schools. "For instance, there are criteria where you look at graduation rates. Well in our state, in some of our smaller schools, if you only have three kids in the high school and nobody graduates that year, that's a black-mark against you … And so we were very aggressive to make sure that in smaller schools or in schools where you have teachers that are teaching multiple grades, that it just works for us."
One of the biggest sore spots brought on from No Child Left Behind emanates from student testing requirements that many argue -- and the Obama administration agrees -- have gone too far. Last month Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who will step down in December, reversed course and called for scaling back classroom time spent focused on passing standardized tests.
Testing will continue.
Alaska will still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, and report on data for high school students. But the state will get to decide its own standards for accountability and actions to reform low-performing schools. The authority of the education secretary to intervene in subpar schools will be limited.
And states could apply to try out local tests, without being locked into using new tests for years on end.
"We don't set the standards for the tests, we again leave that to the states," Murkowski said. "So we don't tell you that there's going to be a national test that everybody has to adhere to and these are your criteria. We allow the states to make that determination."
In Alaska, the "Alaska Measures of Progress" test for English, language arts and math has already been taken by 72,300 students in grades 3 through 10. This year's test scores are expected to be a baseline for measuring progress going forward, according to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
The state uses seven different statewide tests, including the AMP, a kindergarten profile test, a screening for early literacy, among other tests, such as the college-ready tests like the SAT and ACT, as well as a national education test.
"Right now the state internally is going through a lot of discussion about the AMP and whether or not this is the right test," Murkowski said. " I'm not going to get involved in that … That debate should go on at the state and the local levels."
But Murkowski added that she is "critical of testing for testing's sake," and said that under No Child Left Behind, testing became too frequent, while results were too slow to be useful for educators.
In recent years, "we were testing on top of testing. The results were not coming back in a timely enough manner to do anything with it. And we were losing so many days of classroom time that you just -- people were just totally frustrated," Murkowski said.
Under the new law, Alaska would also be given the opportunity to craft legislation allowing students to opt out of tests, Murkowski said. But there will be a federal minimum of 95 percent participation, according to Education Week.
Another big change for Alaska will be the federal role in evaluating teachers, Murkowski said. No longer will Washington, D.C., decide what it means to be a "highly qualified teacher." Under current law, teachers must hold special certifications in all subjects that they teach.
The law doesn't allow "for a recognition that in the state of Alaska, a highly qualified teacher might be one that is very adept at dealing with multiple ages and different grade-spans, because that's what he or she has to do in that small school setting," Murkowski said. Instead, a teacher may have to have a certificate in biology, for instance.
"And it didn't measure up for us," Murkowski said. Applying "one-size-fits-all" standards "across a state like Alaska that is as big as we are with as small numbers as we are ... that is just different in many respects, you've got to have a level of flexibility," she said.
Murkowski said the final bill will also have strong provisions for Native education, supporting a current program focused on curriculum specific to Alaska Native students, and "a robust piece in there that encourages Native immersion programs, which is something that I've long advocated for."
And she worked with California Democrat Barbara Boxer to include options for supporting after-school programs "for our kids whose mom and dads are not there to pick them up at 3 o'clock when class is over," Murkowski said.
Overall, the bill marks a new step forward for national education requirements. "We haven't done education reform since we passed No Child Left Behind some 14 years ago," Murkowski said.
And Alaska's senior senator argued the success with education reform -- in tandem with efforts to pass a multiyear transportation bill by Dec. 4 -- shows Congress is moving in a positive direction. "Most of what you see about Congress right now is, 'it's gridlock, nobody's doing anything, we're just sitting around fighting.' And I do think it's important to recognize that we have been not only advancing measures through the committees, but we've been able to move things through the House and through the Senate. And to be back to a place where we are in conference is really quite extraordinary."
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2011. It was passed in 2001.