Is Congress Really on the Verge of ESEA Reauthorization?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015 -- Dave Adams

With much discussion in the news about possible reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and upcoming votes in both houses of congress, we wanted to take this opportunity to look a little closer at the situation. Read on to hear from our Chief Academic Officer, Dave Adams, about what exactly ESEA is, why it’s important, and what its future may hold.

Under normal conditions the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act), which guides federal education policy and budgets, gets reauthorized by Congress every five years. However, ESEA was last updated by President George W. Bush as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, and has been overdue for reauthorization and languishing in Congress since 2007. There are a number of compelling and urgent reasons to act on ESEA reauthorization that have nothing to do with politics or elections but have everything to do with how students will learn, have access to equal opportunity, and succeed in school and life.

What is ESEA and why is reauthorization important?

ESEA was first signed into law 50 years ago by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his “War on Poverty”. It emphasized equal access to a quality education for all young people. The act funds elementary and secondary education, professional development, curriculum materials, and programs designed to close achievement gaps. The 2002 NCLB update expanded the federal role in education by requiring annual testing in selected grades, academic progress monitoring, school report cards, and teacher qualifications. Since 2014, virtually every state has been out of compliance with NCLB accountability mandates. 

Recent Action and Next Steps

After years of delay and months of negotiation, the House and Senate have actually reached an agreement regarding ESEA that may have a chance of becoming law. This agreement is not legislation yet, but comes in the form of a framework of recommendations that would allow the conference committee to author a bill that could be voted on before the end of this year. The conference committee is planning to have the full bill to both houses of Congress by November 30. The House is planning a vote within a week of its delivery and the Senate will vote before the end of December.

Here’s an overview of some key components of the compromise framework:

Testing
There have been growing complaints that NCLB policy has led to an over-emphasis on assessment, resulting in too much classroom time spent testing kids at the cost of actual learning. The proposed framework maintains the requirement for annual testing but includes a recommendation that states set limits on time spent testing for accountability purposes. This is in line with the recent Obama administration recommendation for limiting testing time to no more than 2% of classroom time.

Accountability
While the Obama administration has pushed for more consistency in accountability systems and data reporting across states, Congress’ framework unwinds some of this effort. States would still report accountability data, but each state would be responsible for creating its own rating system and goals for schools. This would extend to states having the ability to determine the extent to which testing data impacts school goals. This is a significant concession to Republican legislators and a disappointment to many education reformers working to understand and close achievement gaps.

School Choice
The Obama administration and Republican legislators are mostly in agreement on supporting charter schools as a competitive market-based approach with the potential to encourage innovation and efficiency in schools. However, Democrats do not go as far as Republicans in supporting Title 1 portability, which would allow federal funds to follow students to the school of their choice. The current framework proposal does not include Title 1 portability but does provide for 50 pilot programs that would allow districts to combine state, local, and federal funds to follow a child to the school of their choice.

The Balance of Power
Congress’ framework attempts to resolve a set of disagreements on the role of federal versus state control of education policy and funding with a single solution – state block grants.  The block grants would consolidate funds for about 50 different programs, including education technology, mathematics and science partnerships, Advanced Placement, and others. One notable exception is 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a program that funds after-school programs for high poverty and low performing schools, which has survived as an independent line item in the framework.

Early Childhood
Senator Patty Murray of Washington and the Obama administration have fought hard for investment in early childhood education. The proposed framework does include early childhood funding, but it doesn’t position the program within the Department of Education as Democrats wanted. Instead, the early childhood program would be placed in the Department of Health and Human Services, continuing a Republican record of limiting the scope of the Department of Education’s power and influence.

Time for Action

I’d like to end this post by making a case for action. Our outdated federal education policy and funding formulas are more than a political matter. To put things in perspective, our current version of ESEA predates the launch of iTunes, YouTube, Twitter, Apple’s iPod, iPad, and iPhone, and a host of other global innovations. We owe our educators a set of policies and tools that meet the challenges of today’s rapidly changing world.  We owe all our children equal access to educational opportunities that prepare them for success in the future. It’s time to move forward and reauthorize ESEA.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the debates surrounding testing, accountability, and state versus federal rights are all very complex issues with far-reaching consequences. To learn more about this important piece of legislation, take a look at the Department of Education’s webpage. In the coming weeks, we encourage everyone to stay tuned to the news keep informed as to progress being made on approving the proposed framework in both houses of congress. Check back on our blog for an update next month!

 

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