By Ellin J. Nolan
When Congress reconvened, House Education and the Workforce Committee chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) unveiled two legislative packages that are what he is calling “draft proposals” to reauthorize major portions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—Title I, which governs the distribution of federal funds to the country’s poorest schools and districts, and Title II, which governs professional development spending and includes the Math and Science Partnership program. The bills were written without input from Democrats on the committee. The action surprised many education advocates who had hoped the committee would produce a bipartisan measure that would ultimately lead to a negotiation with the Senate in a conference committee on the two chambers’ proposals to rewrite current education law. Public response to the drafts, with a few exceptions, have been highly critical. Although state education agencies (SEAs) and local education agencies (LEAs) are clamoring for relief from the outdated and onerous provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the bills are viewed as so far from the spirit and intent of current law that they would put the needs of low-income children, English language learners, and students with disabilities at risk.
One major disappointment with the legislation relating to Title II is the absence of any mention of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Instead, the bill would combine the programs and funding streams in Title II with several other titles into a block grant distributed to states, allowing SEAs and LEAs to use those funds for state and locally defined priorities. Language regarding highly qualified teachers has been eliminated and instead SEAs and LEAs are required to develop evaluation systems that in a significant way rely on student test scores, though other measures may be included, and this information must be used for employment purposes. The bill does limit the percentage of funding that can be spent on class size reduction, leaving more dollars for professional development—a request that NCTM and others have made repeatedly over the years. A requirement for science testing has been eliminated. Though testing in math and reading is required, there is no annual goal setting, and the education secretary is prohibited from interfering in state decision making. Efforts to turn around low-performing schools are left entirely in state hands and no national competitions are authorized, with all funding distributed by formula to SEAs. The goal of this bill, according to Kline, is to give SEAs and LEAs the necessary flexibility to run their schools and to diminish the authority of the secretary of education and the Department of Education (ED).
According to Education and the Workforce Committee staff members, one reason for a lack of attention to STEM education in the Kline bill was a recently released Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that found overlap in target audiences and purposes among 83 percent of currently funded federal programs supporting STEM education. Though the GAO study stopped short of calling these programs duplicative, it did identify a need for better coordination among agencies and for evaluation of the impact of these investments. The study noted that an important provision in the America COMPETES Act directed the Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a five-year STEM education strategic plan and submit annual reports to Congress. That plan, expected to be released shortly, will address many of the concerns raised by the GAO.
Education featured prominently once again in the president’s State of the Union address. President Obama called education a key to transforming our economy and called on community colleges to become “community career centers,” with added federal support. He asked states to extend the mandatory school attendance age to 18 and to work harder to help more students earn diplomas. Speaking of his signature Race to the Top program, the president said, “For less than one percent of what our nation spends on education each year, we’ve convinced nearly every state in the country to raise their standards for teaching and learning.” He added that in exchange for letting go of the status quo, he would offer schools greater flexibility, encouraging them “to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.” He argued for an overhaul of the Teacher Incentive Fund—another administration priority—that would support reforming teacher education programs and carve out steps that are tied to performance for career advancement for teachers. The president’s budget request is expected to be released February 13, and his plan for federal policies that support this vision will become clearer then. In his speech, the president also pointed out that his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill don’t agree with him about much these days, and even that low level of agreement will probably decline further as this election year continues to unfold.
Ellin J. Nolan is NCTM's Government Relations Consultant.