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Legislative Update: February 17, 2012

The Congress chose not to wait for the release of the president’s FY 2013 budget proposal, on February 13, before getting to work on its own 2013 spending plan. In spite of Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) declaration that a budget resolution is unnecessary this year since spending levels were agreed to in last year’s negotiations around the debt limit increase, House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) took a different view. He proposed removing any cost of living adjustments from the annual budget and successfully brought a new line item veto bill to the House floor last week. Despite the “agreement” alluded to by Reid, the House will produce a budget resolution and a budget plan that are sure to be less generous than the administration’s proposal. 

The Senate, too, started talking about budget in anticipation of the president’s release of his proposal. Appropriations Committee chair Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) announced that last year’s moratorium on earmarks will continue for another year. Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and several colleagues have worked on a bill that would delay the sequestration trigger for one year, but that delay would not mean cutting by a lesser amount. The Kyl plan would shift a greater burden onto domestic spending—where cuts are already estimated at 10 percent—out of fear of “devastating consequences for the military and national defense.”  

The president’s budget apparently does not address the sequestration threat at this time. He said in his State of the Union address that the budget for education will include a new Race to the Top for higher education as well as a version of the Investing in Innovation (i3) program. He will also propose increases in campus-based aid and lower student loan interest rates. Those are costly proposals, and understanding how the president proposes to pay for those initiatives will require reading the budget for details. For K–12 education, he has spoken of a new science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teacher training proposal and support for his signature programs—Race to the Top, i3, and Promise Neighborhoods. While other agencies will certainly see cuts, it appears the administration will continue to give priority to education spending. 

Two other important events for education advocates took place last week. First, the president announced at a White House ceremony that 10 of 11 states’ applications for waivers from the most onerous provisions of the No Child left Behind Act (NCLB) were approved. According to insiders, the approved plans were vastly different from the states’ original submissions. An additional 28 states, along with Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, have indicated their intent to seek waivers. Although the president referred to the waiver policy as part of his “We Can’t Wait” campaign, Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Congressman John Kline (R-Minn.), the most senior Republican policymakers for education in the Congress, saw the move quite differently. Enzi called the waivers “another end run around Congress’s constitutional role to legislate.”  

The second important event involved progress on congressional efforts to rewrite NCLB. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday before introducing two bills to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Kline referred to the waiver announcements and said, “The notion that Congress is to be bypassed is something I find very, very troubling in many ways.” In discussing his legislative proposals to fix NCLB, he announced that a hearing will be held on the legislation this week, with a markup to follow.    

Administration Issues NCLB Waivers to States   

Last week President Obama announced that 10 states will be granted waivers from the most burdensome provisions of NCLB. Late last year, in response to Congress’ apparent inability to reauthorize ESEA—action that is five years past due—President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan unveiled a plan to offer states relief from some of the current law’s requirements in return for agreed-to reforms. To receive a waiver, a state must submit a plan to raise academic standards, improve accountability, close the achievement gap, set new performance targets, and implement reforms to address teacher effectiveness. At the White House announcement, the president said, “After waiting far too long for Congress to reform No Child Left Behind, my administration is giving states the opportunity to set higher, more honest standards in exchange for more flexibility.” He continued, “Today, we're giving 10 states the green light to continue making reforms that are best for them. Because if we're serious about helping our children reach their potential, the best ideas aren't going to come from Washington alone. Our job is to harness those ideas, and to hold states and schools accountable for making them work.”   

The 10 states that will receive waivers are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. New Mexico was the only state that applied in the first round not to be granted flexibility, and the administration is working with the state so that it will also gain approval. Twenty-eight other states, along with Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, have indicated they will apply for waivers in the second round.  

Michael Yudin, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the Department of Education (ED), explained, “States are not getting a pass on accountability measures but rather schools are being unleashed at the local level.” Carmel Martin, ED assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, said that every waiver recipient has a strong plan to adopt college- and career-ready standards and a clear path to “better assessments that result in more effective student engagement and informed teaching.” Specifically, Massachusetts was cited for aligning the standards for teacher licensure with the new college- and career-ready standards that schools will adopt. Many other states, Martin said, will adopt special efforts “to develop standards and model curriculum for students with disabilities and English language learners (ELL).” Kentucky is partnering with institutions of higher education to provide professional development for teachers who serve students in these two groups. States will still maintain systems of accountability and disaggregate data. Such data will be required to inform and guide strategic supports and interventions for students. These data will also be used to reward successful schools instead of enforcing punitive measures for failing ones. However, schools that are identified at the “very bottom” will be targeted for improvements using turnaround strategies.  

Although this effort has received general support, some are voicing concerns about eliminating accountability for minority populations. Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, expressed concern about putting power into local hands, saying, “If school district power were the answer to our education woes, our nation would be soaring high above the rest of the world in achievement. It is not, and it will not, until our leaders—just as the people they serve—face both rewards and sanctions for the education systems they govern.”  Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said that the new flexibility is not cause to abandon efforts supporting equality. “Our coalition will continue to play an active role in holding all 10 of these states and the Department of Education accountable for our children,” she said. More information.   

Kline Unveils ESEA Bills on Accountability and Teachers 

On February 9, before a room packed with education advocates, House Education and the Workforce Committee chair John Kline (R-Minn.) announced the introduction of the remaining bills that complete his piecemeal approach to reauthorizing ESEA. He said the bills seek to remove the federal government from state and local decision making regarding education policy and spending, while promoting more parent involvement.  

The bills, according to Kline, will transfer to states the authority to define their own accountability systems and will offer greater the states flexibility in how they can spend federal funds. Kline spoke about the current law’s Highly Qualified Teacher provisions which, in his view, require paperwork but no real assessment of teacher effectiveness. The bill removes this provision and instead requires local education agencies (LEAs) to develop or adopt teacher evaluation systems that rely in part on student achievement test data. Responding to a question, Kline explained that the bill would not dictate which standards—such as the Common Core State Standards—were adopted by states. The bill eliminates the School Improvement Grant program and does not tell states what interventions they must use to address low performing schools. Few changes were made to the draft bills that were circulated several weeks ago.  

Kline’s vision for a new ESEA is a streamlined law that consolidates funding to states and provides great leeway in terms of the programs and purposes for which states may use these funds. Kline said a hearing is set to discuss the bills, and a markup will follow in two or three weeks. As for whether or not the bill will make it to the House floor, Kline demurred, saying that he had tried to reach a bipartisan agreement with Democrats on the committee but had become frustrated with the lack of progress and felt the need to move forward. What there is bipartisan agreement about, he said, is the “need to change this law.” More information 

Forum on Educational Accountability Examines Assessment 

On February 9, the Forum on Educational Accountability hosted an installment of The Next ESEA—a series of discussions about how assessment can be used to improve learning and provide accountability. Monty Neil, executive director of FairTest, said that NCLB policies that include frequent high-stakes assessment have not proven successful in systematically improving schools. Neil argued that assessments should not be linked to high-stakes accountability but should be used only as an indicator of progress because they test only a small sample of what students should learn. He expressed concern that the new assessment consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and SMARTER Balanced, are developing “bubble tests” that do not assess a student’s ability to write, think critically, or perform high-level mathematic equations. Ann Cook, director of the New York Performance Standards Consortium and co-founder and co-director of the Urban Academy High School in New York City, explained that schools in the consortium consistently outperform their counterparts in student achievement, graduation rates, and reduced suspension rates. In consortium schools, students are required to complete projects in literature, mathematics, social studies, and science. Individual schools may opt to include the arts, internships, foreign languages, and other pursuits. The assessments are grounded in the teachers’ lessons and therefore provide a better picture of progress. More information.  

PCAST Releases Undergraduate STEM Education Report 

On February 7, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report addressing obstacles to effective STEM education at the undergraduate level. The report, Engage to Excel, provides “a strategy for improving STEM education during the first two years of college that we believe is responsive to both the challenges and the opportunities that this crucial stage in the STEM education pathway represents.” PCAST’s key findings include the conclusion that the first two years of undergraduate learning are critical to fostering persistence in STEM disciplines, and that increasing the retention of STEM majors from 40 to 50 percent would produce three-quarters of the one million additional STEM graduates needed over the next decade. The report points to increased retention as “the lowest-cost, fastest policy option for providing the STEM professionals that the nation needs for economic and societal well-being.” The report outlines five major federal policy recommendations. Recommendation 1 calls for funding to help colleges strengthen their programs by implementing evidence-based teaching methods to improve the quality of STEM instruction. Recommendation 2 calls for “advocacy and support for replacing standard lab courses with discovery-based research courses.” “Discovery courses” are more effective that traditional introductory courses in promoting the kind of individual initiative and investigation that excite students. Recommendation 3 calls for tackling the mathematics-preparation gap with a “national experiment” involving a collaboration among the NSF, ED, and the Department of Labor to fund summer “bridge programs” that target high school students entering college, remedial math courses for college students, diversified math curricula, and a “new pipeline for producing K–12 mathematics teachers from math-intensive fields other than mathematics.” Recommendation 4 calls for “encouraging partnerships among stakeholders” to broaden STEM career pathways. Summer STEM learning programs for high school students, expanded exchanges between two- and four-year institutions, and public-private partnerships with industry are all included under this heading. Finally, recommendation 5 calls for the creation of a “Presidential Council on STEM Education,” brought into being by means of an executive order, to oversee the implementation of the policy changes outlined above and to provide long-term guidance as well as diverse expertise on the issue moving forward. More information.  

Campaign for High School Equity Discusses NCLB Waivers 

On February 7, the Campaign for High School Equity (CHSE) held a webinar on Illinois’ ESEA waiver application process. Illinois has applied for a flexibility waiver from the most onerous provisions of the No Child left Behind Act (NCLB) as offered by the Department of Education, and its experience is a case study in the procedural ramifications of the new process. For Illinois, the application includes a focus on four key principles considered essential determinants of success. The first principle involves setting college- and career-ready expectations for all students by adopting new statewide college- and career-ready standards, coupled with extended learning program standards and high-quality assessments. The second principle involves “state-developed differentiated recognition, accountability, and support.” Initiatives related to this principle include a new multiple measures index that provides a holistic view of performance, with multiple measure targets for outcomes. The third principle involves supporting effective instruction and leadership, which relates to developing and refining standards for teacher evaluation and ensuring that evaluations are carried out in a consistent fashion across all school districts. The Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA), signed into law in 2010, is the new statewide mechanism for rating teachers, based on a four-tier system using input from observation, lesson plans, and student improvement on standardized tests. PERA is due to be in place in all Illinois districts by 2016. The final principle involves reducing duplication and unnecessary burden and essentially amounts to bureaucratic streamlining. More information.  

White House Spotlights STEM Education 

On February 6, President Obama held the second White House Science Fair and hosted winners from various science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) competitions and also announced new administration and private sector STEM education initiatives. “When students excel in math and science, they help America compete for the jobs and industries of the future,” said the president. He announced several new programs and the revision of others that were included in his budget proposal to help reach the goal of 100,000 new STEM teachers in 10 years and to improve STEM education. These included an $80 million new competition to support STEM teacher preparation programs; a STEM focus in the next Race to the Top competition; and the use of Teacher Incentive Funds to benefit STEM teachers. The president’s budget will also have a focus on undergraduate STEM education, including a $100 million initiative to improve undergraduate STEM education. The Department of Education (ED) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) will work together in a newly proposed $60 million effort to scale up evidence-based initiatives to improve student learning in elementary school through their undergraduate careers. In addition to these proposals, the philanthropic and private sectors are investing in the cause. More than 115 organizations have joined forces to create the 100Kin10 coalition, aiming to help reach the goal of 100,000 new STEM teachers in 10 years, and 14 organizations announced a new $22 million fund for STEM teacher preparation and support. Continuing the STEM momentum, Teach for America has indicated that it will work to recruit 11,000 new STEM corps members by 2015; Google has promised to partner with districts and organizations to assist in reform efforts; and California State University aims to graduate 1,500 new math and science teachers each year through 2015, with the goal of having half of the graduates teach in high needs school for at least three years. More information 

AEI Discusses What to Expect for Education Policy in 2012 

On February 1, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) hosted “Education 2012: What the Election Year Will Mean for Education Policy.” Fredrick Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at AEI, moderated a panel discussion of what lies ahead for education policy. He was joined by David Winston, a Republican pollster, strategist, and president of the Winston Group; Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform; Alyson Klein, reporter for Education Week covering federal K–12 education policy and Congress; Katherine Haley, policy assistant handling education, workforce, welfare and social issues for Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio),; and Peter Cunningham, assistant secretary for communications and outreach at ED. Hess asked the speakers to predict any surprises for 2012. Winston suggested that whoever is ultimately the Republican nominee, he or she won’t attack Obama on his education agenda; Williams and Haley predicted a shift of educational policy power away from ED and back to governors; and all of the participants, except ED’s Cunningham, predicted that ED will ultimately lower the high bar that it has initially set for the NCLB waivers that states are seeking. The draft bills that House Education and the Workforce Committee chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) released in January were a topic of concern. Williams characterized the proposals as a “gutting” of the current law’s accountability provisions. Haley commented that new members on the Education and the Workforce Committee had heard repeated complaints from constituents about current law and support relaxing the provisions. Asked whether or not ESEA might be reauthorized this year, Haley noted that House leadership is planning for a committee markup and subsequent floor action. More information.  

ED Hosts Conference on College Completion 

On February 1, ED hosted a day-long symposium on college completion. Practitioners from 30 higher education institutions, policy experts, and some of the nation’s leading researchers gathered to discuss how to improve college graduation rates and share evidence-based best practices. Meeting President Obama’s goal for the nation of leading the world in college degree attainment by 2020 was also a key topic, with discussions focused on affordable and innovative ways to reach that goal. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “All the good ideas are out there with you guys. I urge you to be creative and thoughtful.” Thus far, the administration has focused on access, and “we have not done enough to incent completion,” Duncan said. Panelists highlighted the need for effective student coaching to encourage and support students throughout postsecondary education. More information.  

Digital Town Hall Meeting Launches Digital Learning Day 

February 1 was the inaugural Digital Learning Day, and the Alliance for Excellent Education hosted an event to kick off the occasion. The day-long event included online communication among more than 15,000 teachers in 39 states who touch the lives of more than 2 million young people. In preparation for the day, the Alliance and its partners in this venture created a website to support the efforts of schools and teachers across the nation. A national town hall meeting began with a welcome from Alliance president and former West Virginia governor Bob Wise. Wise read a letter from President Obama, who endorsed the need for better use of technology to update America’s schools and make learning more relevant to 21st-century students. The event featured panel discussions, videos presenting programs at schools in four cities—Charlotte, Cleveland, Denver, and Houston—and Skype interviews with administrators, teachers, and students from the featured schools. The first panel included Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Julius Genachowski. They unveiled a new “playbook” for educators on using technology effectively in the classroom. Secretary Duncan made the case that technology had transformed communications, the workplace, the world of entertainment and corporate operations but had barely had an impact on the education system—a change that was long overdue. More information.  


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