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Legislative Update: March 7, 2013

After months of anticipation, the sequester has now been triggered. Congress and the White House, in spite of reassuring the public for months that the effects of sequestration would be just “too awful” and they would never let it happen, failed to come up with an alternative. Because of a policy known as “forward funding,” most education programs will not feel the impact of the sequester until the fall—but not all programs. Head Start and Impact Aid will feel the cuts immediately in the remaining months of this fiscal year.

Last week, President Obama invited leaders from both parties in the House and Senate to a meeting at the White House. Although no one was sure what the agenda would be, advocates around the country were hoping the meeting would mark the end of the tiresome finger pointing and the beginning of a bipartisan effort to prevent the harsh randomness of steep across-the-board-cuts from affecting everything from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Title I to the Defense Department. Unfortunately, that was not to be. With the sequester in effect, $3 billion in funding for the Department of Education and Head Start will be eliminated from the baseline on which the Senate built the FY 2013 budget for education. This reduction will mean, for example, a cut of $735 million from Title I and a cut of $600 million from IDEA.

According to the National School Boards Association, 75 percent of local education agencies (LEAs) will begin layoffs this spring, when contracts can’t be signed because resources are unavailable. States will be hard-pressed to make up for reductions in federal support for K–12 programs that local schools must sustain. Higher education programs are not off the hook either, in spite of the exemption of the Pell Grant program from this first round of cuts. All campus-based and institutional aid will be cut by the same 5 percent figure.

One of the real tragedies of the situation is that the cuts will affect the same people over and over again. Individuals dependent on food stamps, child-care vouchers, special education services, community health clinics, or student aid, for example, will see all these services either reduced or eliminated. In many instances, agencies have no choice but to furlough personnel. It is estimated that between today and September 30, many federal employees will lose 22 days of pay, creating a significant burden for them and a ripple effect on the economy.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently that these cuts are “stupid.” It is hard to argue that point. Whether you think the federal government is too big or too small, this is no way to run a country as large and as prosperous as the United States. The next fiscal crisis is just three weeks away. Let’s hope that in the coming weeks, the president and congressional leaders can find a reasonable solution to these manufactured yet destructive deadlines. If not, furloughs for them should surely be in order! Not surprisingly, however, salaries of our elected officials are exempt from the cuts that their staff on the Hill and career employees within agencies must endure.

ELLs and the Common Core
The Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) recently held an event, “Building on the Common Core State Standards to Improve Learning for English Language Learners.” At the center of the event was a publication released in October, The Role of Language and Literacy in College- and Career-Ready Standards: Rethinking Policy and Practice in Support of English Language Learners. Background information was provided about the evolution of the Common Core State Standards, going back to the 1974 Supreme Court decision in Lau v. Nichols, which expanded the rights of English language learners (ELLs) in the United States. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) provide a chance to ensure that ELLs receive the best education possible, but careful thought must be given to how the standards are implemented, and policy must reflect these students’ unique educational needs. Collaborative professional development among the English as a second language (ESL) teacher, the general content teacher, and school administrators creates an environment that best supports the student, giving all who are involved the same training and understanding of the goals set forth. Sequestration may impact the technical assistance available to schools, and a lack of funding may push states away from CCSS. More info 

Workforce Investment Act Reauthorization
On February 26, the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Higher Education and the Workforce discussed the recently introduced H.R. 803, Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act, which reauthorizes the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which has not been updated since 1998. The hearing featured witnesses who provided committee members with varied views of the SKILLS Act, which “eliminates and streamlines” 35 federal programs and creates a single source of employment support for employers and job seekers. Members’ questions focused on the costs and benefits surrounding consolidation and the effects of providing greater state and local flexibility to determine state workforce investment board members. More information is available on the hearing, including an archived webcast, testimony, and opening statements.

Engineering in K–12 STEM Learning
On February 27, Change the Equation hosted a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) salon to discuss the place of engineering in K–12 STEM learning. The discussion focused on foundational challenges, ranging from whether engineering belongs in the school day or in a more informal setting, to what “counts” as engineering and how to train teachers. Some predicted that the next generation science standards would integrate engineering to some degree. However, the continued emphasis on reading and math, the ongoing debate about teacher evaluations, and the focus on measuring student achievement and standardized testing are seen as barriers to a focus on engineering and to opportunities for engineering to play a more prominent role in K–12 education. Transforming the prevailing mindset about who can become an engineer was another prominent topic in the conversation. Reaching students early in the elementary grades was recommended; however, elementary school teachers must feel “empowered” to integrate engineering activities into the science and math curriculum, and they need guidance about what such a curriculum would looks like. The salon discussed a suggestion about a “Brainology” program, designed to teach children that you can “grow your brain” through practice and work. Increasing the number of role models, especially for African American and minority communities, by supporting partnerships between businesses and schools would not only help change this mindset, but would also begin to build a STEM workforce pipeline. More info  

School Safety
The House Education and the Workforce Committee recently held a hearing, “Protecting Students and Teachers: A Discussion on School Safety.” Chaired by Representative John Kline (R-Minn.), the hearing brought together an expert panel of witnesses to discuss efforts in place and changes that can be made to improved security in the nation’s schools. Both Chairman Kline and ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.) expressed sadness about the tragedies that made the hearing’s topic relevant, but they agreed that it is a necessary discussion to have in order to increase the safety of students in schools. Several ideas circulated throughout the hearing. Each witness stressed the key role that strong, trusting relationships between students and school staff plays in ensuring school safety. Parent and community engagement, as well as collaboration with all stakeholders, is also critical to promoting school safety. Members were interested to learn about perceived barriers to preventing school violence and how the federal government can offer better support for safe schools. More information is available on the hearing, including an archived webcast, testimony, and opening statements.

Teacher Evaluation
On February 28, the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, chaired by Representative Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), held a hearing to learn about the methods that states and school districts are using to evaluate and promote teacher effectiveness. According to the Chairman Rokita, the hearing marked a renewal of efforts to address the challenges facing K–12 schools by focusing on teacher quality. To open the hearing, Rokita acknowledged the shortcomings of current law, stating, “No Child Left Behind’s rigid ‘Highly Qualified Teacher’ provisions require educators to have a bachelor’s degree, hold a state certification or license, and be able to demonstrate knowledge of the subject matter they plan to teach. That all sounds great in theory, but in reality it meant schools were forced to value an educator’s credentials over his or her ability to effectively and successfully teach our children.” Credentials are not a good predictor of teachers’ positive effects on students in the classroom, and the reliance on them can frustrate educators. Learn more by reading witness testimony, opening statements, or watch an archived webcast of the hearing.   

Equity and Excellence Commission Release Final Report
Two years after it was convened, the Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Commission released its final report on February 18, For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence. The commission included 27 researchers and education stakeholders and was led by Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, professor at Stanford Law School, and Chris Edley, dean of the University of California Berkeley School of Law. The report proposes a “five-pronged agenda” for states and the federal government to adopt to eliminate poverty, in which 22 percent of U.S. children live, and ultimately eliminate the achievement gap. The five recommendations include (1) ensuring equitable school finance; (2) providing improved teachers, leaders, and curricula; (3) expanding high-quality early education; (4) mitigating impacts of poverty on at-risk students; and (5) increasing government accountability. Additionally, the report recommends that states pay teachers a more competitive wage and increase selectivity and effectiveness of teacher training. The federal government’s role in such an endeavor would be to create a new grant program to address the teacher pipeline issues. The report also suggests that the federal government adopt dropout-prevention programs and other alternative-education opportunities to help at-risk students. More info  

New Report on Student Performance
On February 21, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a new report, Mega-States: An Analysis of Student Performance in the Five Most Heavily Populated States in the Nation, which examines the educational performance of students in California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas. The report focused on these five states because they educate nearly 40 percent of all students in the nation. Data in the report are from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessments in reading, mathematics, and science from 1990 to 2011 for grades 4 and 8. The report provided an in-depth look at the performance of specific student groups by subject, focusing on academic performance over time; comparisons with the nation and among the five states; highlights of gains for student groups, including those that performed higher than their peers in the nation; and student performance at or above the NAEP “Proficient” level. The following findings were highlighted: fourth graders from Florida and New York scored higher than the national average in reading; Illinois eighth graders scored higher than the national average in reading; and Texas eighth graders scored higher than the national average in math and science. Read the full report.

Technology Policy
The National Coalition for Technology in Education & Training (NCTET) held a policy forum on February 19 with Karen Cator, director of the Office of Education Technology at the Department of Education (ED), and Jamie Fasteau, director of education policy for the House Education and the Workforce Committee (Democratic staff). Taking time out of her last official day at ED, Cator discussed past initiatives that she had helped lead and the gains from these initiatives, specifically highlighting the upsurge of investors in education technology, the heightened awareness of the importance of data, and the increased accessibility facilitated by tablets and smart phones. Cator pointed out a gap between inputs and outcomes, explaining that often data are collected on a number of technological devices or types of programs introduced in schools, but that the identification of “meaningful” data concerning the outcomes from these resources for students and teachers lags behind. Providing her perspective on future challenges and solutions, Cator pointed to funding as a major concern. She also characterized the increasing need to integrate technology across all funding streams, specifically in the context of using technology to help grant applicants reach certain goals, as a challenge. Fasteau provided an update on the Transforming Education through Technology Act and Advanced Researching Projects Agency-Education Act (ARPA-ED) introduced by congressman George Miller (D-Calif.). She described both pieces of legislation as new ways to approach the delivery of education. They represent a rethinking of equity and provide access to educational opportunities to the students that the federal government is trying to reach, said Fasteau. The Transforming Education through Technology Act, according to Fasteau, focuses on professional development, infrastructure, and the Common Core State Standards and assessments.  Concerning ARPA-ED, Fasteau emphasized that it is a priority for Congressman Miller to include this act in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Learn more about NCTET.


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