Reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

Both the House and Senate recently introduced legislation aimed at making changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The ESEA bill is long overdue for reauthorization, however neither measure has received bipartisan support. This means it will be very difficult to reauthorize the bill this year. However, on June 12 the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee completed consideration of a proposed bill by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa advancing the bill along party lines after two days of debate. Senator Harkin hopes the legislation will make it to the floor of the Senate, where amendments will be allowed, and then to a conference with the House version. This would mark the first serious effort to reauthorize ESEA since it expired in 2007.

Senator Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) bill, Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013 (SASA), eliminates No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements, and the punitive consequences that schools face when AYP is not met. The bill would also require States to adopt high standards, but not necessarily the Common Core. It would expand the data collection requirement of ESEA, and would require school districts to continue separating student achievement data across subgroups and to add the categories of gender and English proficiency.

During the committee markup, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Tim Scott (R-FL), offered an amendment that would allow students receiving Title I dollars to use that funding to attend private schools. AFSA is a member of the National Coalition of Public Education, which sent a letter to Chairman Harkin and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), expressing strong opposition to any amendment that would allow scarce federal dollars be spent on private schools. AFSA also directly reached out to the members of Congress serving on the committee to oppose the measure. The amendment was ultimately defeated in committee by a vote of 14-8.

SASA would:

  • Require districts and states to develop teacher and principal evaluation systems based in part on student outcomes, including achievement and growth
  • For schools labeled “low-performing,” to maintain the four improvement models included under the School Improvement Grant program
  •  Add a “whole-school reform” option, which allows schools to use a turnaround option that is supported by evidence
  • Make the Title I funding formula for school districts serving low-income students more equitable, by requiring local and state resources per pupil in those schools to be equal or greater than the average combined local and state funds per pupil in non-Title I schools.
  • Require each school district receiving Title I funds to complete an Equity Report card on several factors impacting students
  • Allow states with NCLB waivers to continue using accountability systems that have been approved by the Department of Education
  • Write into law the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which includes language that would require states to expand early childhood education initiatives and incentives for states to provide full-day kindergarten

AFSA appreciates Senator Harkin’s leadership and commitment to public education, and for his efforts to reauthorize ESEA. However, our views do differ on certain aspects of the bill.  While we agree that AYP unfairly labels schools as failing and we support the proposal to eliminate NCLB’s AYP requirements, we do not agree with educator evaluation systems that are based too heavily on test scores. Organized groups that represent principals must have input in the development and design of such systems. The evaluations must be transparent and used to help improve instruction and provide professional development for educators, not to determine personnel decisions.

In addition AFSA opposes the improvement models under the School Improvement Grant program, especially the required dismissal of the principal and staff. However, basing the fifth improvement model on evidence is a step in the right direction.

Harkin’s bill also includes a provision that would alter the Title I funding formula for school districts serving low-income students. AFSA has long advocated for an increased investment in education, especially for schools serving the most disadvantaged students. While we are still reviewing this specific proposal, it appears positive in that it would help to equalize the disparities in funding in states across school districts.

In reference to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, AFSA has long expressed concern with competitive grant programs. Congress should increase the federal investment in education for all children, not continue a system that creates winners and losers. AFSA also supports increased investment and focus on early childhood education. The language in the bill that requires states to expand early childhood education initiatives gives incentives for states to provide full-day kindergarten. However, in this process we must be careful not to place an overemphasis on testing our youngest children.

In the House, Representative John Kline (R-MN) and Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) introduced The Student Success Act (H.R. 5).  This legislation is more in line with the amendment offered by Senator Lamar Alexander that was defeated 12-10 in the Senate HELP committee. If it passes the House, and Senator Harkin’s legislation passes the Senate, it will represent the Republican’s policy priorities for a conference negotiation.

Specifically, the measure differs from the Senate bill by:

  • Consolidating almost all federal funding, including Title I, into one large block grant and eliminating 70 existing K-12 programs
  • Eliminating the federally mandated interventions in “low-performing” schools. States and districts would be given flexibility to develop appropriate improvement strategies
  • Explicitly prohibiting the Secretary of Education to encourage states to adopt a particular set of standards
  • Allowing states to design their own accountability systems with few parameters set by the federal government
  • Removing “Maintenance of Effort,” which requires districts to maintain spending at a certain level in order to receive federal funds
  • Requiring school districts and/or states to base teacher and principal evaluations on student outcomes, and to use the results to make personnel decisions as defined by the district, which would include promotions and firings
  • Repealing the federal “Highly Qualified Teacher” requirements

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