Education Policy, Reform, and Budgets with the 2016 Presidential Election on the Horizon

Wednesday, March 25, 2015 -- Dave Adams

The race has officially begun! Even though the midterm elections are barely behind us, the first 2016 presidential hopeful, Ted Cruz, has officially announced his candidacy, and it’s time for political junkies and education policy nerds (like me) to enjoy the great spectacle that is our democracy in action. OK, it is a bit early to get caught up in presidential politics, but there is certainly plenty of great education policy stirring in Washington, DC, right now—all of which could likely be overshadowed by the growing 2016 noise. So how will education policy, reform, and funding play out against the dramatics of a presidential election? Here are some thoughts and predictions:

NCLB Reauthorization

Will No Child Left Behind (NCLB) (or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) if you prefer) be reauthorized? Not likely. Remember, it takes a vote from both houses of Congress and a presidential signature—and these are rare occurrences these days. Even though NCLB is likely to remain through 2016, it’s still insightful to watch the debate over NCLB play out in the House and Senate. Here are some key points of interest:

Testing, one of the key components of NCLB, has been highly controversial from the time when President George W. Bush rolled out the policy in 2001. While educators generally agree on the importance of measuring student learning, how to do that has always been a point of contention. Right now, there are a few different proposals working their way through congressional committees attempting to redesign testing requirements. One proposal favored by The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) would keep most of the current NCLB testing and accountability measures intact. Another proposal being considered by Sen. Lamar Alexander's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee would open the door widely for states to design their own assessments, including everything from grade-span tests, competency-based tests, and portfolio assessments. 

Accountability is another area that nearly all educators agree we need to track and measure, but how much, what kind, and how punitive it should be remain points of debate. Today, nearly every state is operating under a “flexibility” waiver, awaiting NCLB reauthorization and new guidance. So what new accountability ideas are brewing in Congress? Sen. Alexander's proposal would let states create their own accountability systems as long as they consider student achievement, take into account student subgroups (like special education and ELLs), and use a four-year graduation rate. Alexander’s proposal would also cut requirements for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). At the other end of the accountability spectrum is a “dashboard of indicators” approach, which Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, and Otha Thornton, president of the National Parent-Teacher Association, outlined in a Washington Post op-ed. García and Thornton state: “What we need instead is a whole dashboard of indicators that monitor better measures of success for the whole child—a critical, creative mind, a healthy body and an ethical character. And we need indicators of each student’s opportunities to learn—what programs, services and resources are available?”

Title I Portability is perhaps the most glaring example of the partisanship divide between left- and right-leaning policymakers. On the left, Democrats are demanding more federal oversight and accountability of federal funds to ensure that they are helping the most disadvantaged students. Meanwhile, lawmakers on the right are advocating for Title I portability, which would allow federal Title I funds to follow children to the public (not private) school of their choice, as long as states give the OK. Many civil rights groups and the National Coalition for Public Education strongly oppose Title I portability and outline three key reasons:

1. Portability undermines the purpose of Title I to combat concentrations of poverty

2. Portability denies school districts the ability to target the funds to where they are most needed

3. Portability acts as a stepping-stone towards private school vouchers

Reminder— it’s easy to get caught up in the politics of education policy and forget that none of this is likely to materialize as real legislation against the backdrop of a presidential campaign cycle. But, education doesn’t stop while the country gears up for an election, so federal education budget proposals will likely remain a focus of the campaigns.   

Federal Education Budget

It should be no surprise that Democrats are proposing increases in education spending, while Republicans are proposing spending cuts. Here are some highlights:

President Obama’s 2016 budget proposes:

    • Increases for early childhood education with $1 billion in additional funding for Head Start and $750 million for the Department of Education's Preschool Development Grants to fund Preschool for All
    • Increases for Title I funding by $1 billion
    • Investments of more than $3 billion on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education
    • $150 million for the Department of Education's Promise Neighborhoods program
    • Providing tuition-free community college for responsible students

Republican plans would cut spending by eliminating a number of programs, including SIG (School Improvement Grants), Transition to Teaching, School Leadership, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (which is for after-school programs), Advanced Placement, Elementary and Secondary School Counseling, Arts in Education, and grants for education technology. Also gone in the GOP plan are President Obama’s and Secretary of Education Duncan’s signature programs: Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and Promise Neighborhoods. Title I funds remain pretty much level in the current GOP plan at about $15 billion.

Now my final reminder—current budget proposals on both sides should be considered as “opening bids.” So, don’t get too attached to any of these ideas just yet. The fun is only beginning!