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Legislative Update: June 20, 2013

Education advocates, bleary-eyed from pouring through three draft proposals to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), spent much of last week sitting through the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee markup of Chairman Tom Harkin’s (D-Iowa) proposal, the Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013, S. 1094. The debate was completely partisan and cordial. Democrats made the case for a government that partners with schools, and Republicans insisted that the government is behaving like a “national school board.” At the end of two days of debate, the bill was adopted on a 12-10 party-line vote. The Republican members of the committee, led by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), put forth their own proposal, which was defeated 10-12 early in the markup. At the conclusion of the executive session, despite passing a partisan proposal, Senators Harkin and Alexander talked optimistically about bringing the bill to the Senate floor for a full debate later this year.

This week, attention will turn to the House Education and the Workforce Committee, where a markup is scheduled on a reauthorization proposal put forth by Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.). Ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.) has a bill of his own that has not yet been released. It is anticipated that the House markup will be a carbon copy of the HELP Committee debate in the Senate, but in reverse. The chairman’s bill will pass with no Democratic support, and all Democratic amendments will be soundly defeated. Chairman Kline has said he has a commitment from the leadership to bring his ESEA bill to the floor in July, where it will surely pass with very little, but perhaps some, bipartisan support. If a conference committee meets, the divide between the two measures is so wide that it is hard to imagine a bridge to bring them together.

Read complete summaries on the Senate markup for day one and day two.

The administration has remained silent on this activity in Congress. It appears that President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have moved on to their next big education policy goal—universal prekindergarten and improved services for children from birth to five years old. Duncan is spending his days flying around the country to states with Republican governors, hoping to garner their support to urge Republicans in Congress to endorse these proposals. As was reported in the press last week, he has nothing left to offer but his “very impressive salesmanship” skills. Though most of Congress agrees with the idea that the earlier children start learning, the better their chances are to be successful, paying for it is the deal breaker.

In the Senate last week, the debate began on a massive immigration reform bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. Progress was slow, but Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) insists that the bill will pass before the July 4 recess. In the House, most committees remained focused on what the GOP refers to as the “Obama scandals”—Ben Ghazi, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and now wiretapping. It was also a week when Congressman John Dingell (D-Miss.) was feted in the Capitol Rotunda as the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives. The highlight of the bipartisan gathering was a performance by Motown great Mary Wilson of the Supremes and her back-up dancing and singing team—led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), other unidentified female members, and “Wonder Woman” Lynda Carter.

Elementary and Secondary Education Act Reauthorization Plans Unveiled
Any advocates who were complaining that they haven’t seen enough action on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) recently are biting their tongues. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee released a bill that would reauthorize the law—a feat last accomplished in 2002. The bill comes in at more than 1,100 pages—longer than the bill debated by the committee in 2011. Ranking member Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) released his much slimmer proposal as well—coming in at just over 200 pages. And House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) also released his proposal for reauthorizing the law.  

While the flurry of activity might have been unexpected, the content of the proposals was not surprising. Chairman Harkin’s proposal, the Strengthening America’s Schools Act, which was supported by all the Democratic members of the committee, would require states to set achievement and growth targets for students, including subgroups. Analysts say the plan mirrors the approach to accountability and performance targets seen in the Administration’s ESEA waivers. It is clearly different from the approach included in the bill passed by the committee with bipartisan support in 2011 and arguably outlines a bigger role for the federal government in K–12 education. That explains why not a single Republican supports the approach—down from the three who voted for the bill the last time.

It is worth noting that this bill has more support from the civil rights community than the 2011 plan. That measure drew strong opposition from advocates for English language learners, racial minorities, disadvantaged students, and those in special education, who saw it as watering down accountability. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a group of some 200 civil rights organizations, has already issued a statement supporting the proposed bill. Additionally, Education Trust, which opposed the bill from 2011, has said this proposal is a big improvement. Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan likes the plan and has said he thinks that it reflects a good approach to eliminating the flaws of current law. Ranking member Alexander, however, asserts the plan makes the Department of Education “a national school board”—which the former governor and secretary of education does not regard as a good thing.

What about the content of the Strengthening America’s Schools Act? It would continue to call for annual achievement tests in mathematics and reading in grades 3 through 8 and tests at least once in high school, and the scores would still be disaggregated by subgroup. In a change of policy, states could use a series of formative assessments instead of a single summative test, as long as the formative assessments convey a full picture of student achievement.

Under the proposal, the 37 states that have waivers would be allowed to carry out their accountability plans; states without waivers would develop a set of goals that take into account both overall student achievement and growth. States would have to evaluate school performance and identify their bottom 5 percent of schools as “priority” schools and another 10 percent of schools with persistent achievement gaps or other problems as “focus” schools. High schools with graduation rates of less than 60 percent would also fall into in the priority school category. The four models created under the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program would persist; however, a fifth option—“whole school reform”—would be added. Not surprisingly, the bill requires high-quality standards, but states don’t necessarily have to adopt the Common Core or Next Generation Science Standards.

The bill’s Title II professional development funds would go to districts and states that perform teacher evaluations based in part on student outcomes, including achievement and growth. Other measures, such as educator observations, would also be considered. In addition, 20 percent of Title II professional development dollars would go to teachers at the lowest-performing schools.

The proposal released by Senator Alexander represents a more conservative approach to reauthorizing the law. In discussing the bill with reporters, he noted failed attempts to compromise, saying, “We just have dramatically different views of the role of the federal government in education.” The Alexander bill would continue to require states to assess achievement in grades 3–8 and once in high school, but doesn’t outline “focus” or “priority” schools like the Harkin plan. As for teacher evaluation—a sticking point in the 2011 committee action—the Republican plan would eliminate the current law’s “highly qualified teacher” provisions and allow states to use Title II funds to develop their own teacher evaluation systems, which might or might not consider student outcomes. The bill also includes a public school choice option, allowing Title I funds to follow students to the public school of their choosing. Funds would not follow them to private schools. Alexander’s proposal also includes language clarifying that the Secretary of Education cannot require any specific standards, assessments, or accountability systems, and the bill eliminates maintenance of effort requirements for districts.

The House has also entered the ESEA fray. John Kline (R-Minn), chairman of the House , released a bill that is very similar to those passed by the committee last year. Among the minor changes are a requirement that states develop science standards—a win for the STEM education community—and a change to allow states to use Title II money for principal evaluations. The bill goes further than Senator Alexander’s on the issue of school choice, calling for states to set aside 3 percent of Title I funds for a competitive grant program that would allow districts to offer school choice or free tutoring. As for House Democrats, ranking member of the Education and the Workforce Committee George Miller (D-Calif.) had been circulating his alternative approach to reauthorization, which is based on the substitute amendment that he offered last year. Not surprisingly, his bill is much more similar to Senator Harkin’s plan than to Chairman Kline’s.

So, what’s next? The HELP Committee started a markup on June 11, and it was expected to go for two days. Because all members of the panel know that the end result will be a bill supported by only Democrats, the number of amendments is expected to be much smaller than in 2011. The House Education and the Workforce Committee markup was June 19 and will also be a partisan activity. In discussing the bill, Chairman Kline said he expects this bill to be on the floor of the House soon—before the August recess. There is some hope that if the House passes a bill that is much slimmer than what is expected from the HELP Committee, a potential conference committee negotiation might yield a good compromise measure.

White House Plan for STEM Education 
On June 4, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing to review the administration’s proposed five-year strategic plan for the consolidation and reorganization of federal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs. Witnesses discussed the process of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) for reviewing the STEM education portfolio across many different agencies and the role of the White House Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education (CoSTEM) in drafting the administration’s proposed reorganization. More info (includes complete witness statements and a recording) of the hearing. The CoSTEM report and supporting documents are also available.

Improving America’s University-Based Teacher Preparation Programs
On June 4, Education Week focused on the issue of raising the selectivity standards for teacher preparation programs in a webinar, “Higher Entry Bar, Better Teachers?” Critics believe the current admission requirements for university-based schools of education are not selective enough. Furthermore, the connection between teacher academic aptitude and instruction effectiveness has become more apparent with recent education rankings placing the United States below their international counterparts with higher teacher selectivity standards. Education Week hosted a discussion among education policy experts and university administrators to address these realities and brainstorm about ways to ensure that high-quality candidates are entering the teacher workforce pipeline. Watch the archived webinar.

Obama Administration Releases ConnectED Plan
On June 6, the Obama administration released a proposed plan, ConnectED, to overhaul the federal E-rate program, aiming to improve the technological capabilities of schools. The proposal asks the Federal Communications Commission to increase funding and redirect current funding to provide 99 percent of schools access to high-speed broadband and wireless Internet access within five years. Additionally, the president calls for better use of existing federal funds to improve classroom technology, specifically to strategically invest in “professional development to help teachers keep pace with changing technological and professional demands.” The initiative is also intended to build on private sector innovation to update textbooks and other educational materials. More info 

State Education Policy
On June 12, the American Educational Research Association (AERA) hosted a discussion with Lee White Posey, education committee director, National Council of State Legislators, as part of the AERA/Institute for Educational Leadership Educational Policy Forum series. After providing attendees with an overview of the current climate in state legislatures, describing it as a bipartisan environment where the budget presides, Posey spoke of the major issues in education policy that council members face. Posey found federal funding for education programs to be a common concern among state legislatures. She said that the administration’s emphasis on competitive grants, such as Race to the Top, has resulted in inequitable funding and has increased the equity gap between states. She asserted that the administration should refocus its funding efforts and return to formula grants, such as Title I, to ensure that the states most in need receive adequate funds. Furthermore, according to Posey, a common belief is that education policy dictated from the federal level does not work. With each state’s circumstances varying from every other state’s, federal programs are not tailored to fit individual states’ unique needs. The increase in the number of states opposing the Common Core State Standards reflects this attitude, she added. State legislatures are hesitant to adopt the Common Core Standards for multiple reasons, one being that they do not believe they are as “rigorous” as their current state standards, she explained. State data systems and the issue of privacy have become another matter of concern. Posey said while states are supportive of improving state data systems and acknowledge the benefits, they believe that more needs to be done to protect the privacy of personal data and information. A good governance system is the first step in protecting privacy, according to Posey. While on the subject of computer science and technology in education, Posey described career technical education as a “silo issue” among state legislatures. Questions pertaining to high school technical certifications and dual enrollment have taken a back seat to budgetary concerns in state legislatures. More info 

Quality of Higher Education 
On June 13, the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training held a hearing, “The Role of Accreditation in Quality Higher Education Programs.” The hearing featured expert witnesses, and the opening statement discussed how accreditation began as a way to guarantee excellence in higher education programs and ensure that federal funds supported only high-quality institutions. Given the higher education system’s transition to include new technology and a more diverse student population, the accreditation system must also be reviewed. “If standards to measure quality continue to be based on so-called ‘traditional’ programs and students of the past, those institutions working diligently to innovate and serve the needs of today’s students—while also seeking opportunities to offer more cost-effective degree programs—could be at an accreditation disadvantage,” one witness said. Ranking member Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX) agreed that changes in accreditation are necessary. More info (includes an archived recording of the hearing).

National Generation Science Standards
Lately the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which were released earlier this year, have been in the news. The number of states that have agreed to adopt them to date is two—last week Kentucky joined the inaugural signer, Rhode Island. More states are expected to sign on in coming weeks and months, but some education experts took issue with the standards last week. Education Week hosted a webinar on the new standards, and the Fordham Foundation released a reporton them. Although complicated politics are involved in state decisions to adopt the science standards, the experts argued that if teachers are really to understand the content and goals, they should read the framework that is the basis for the standards. The standards call for deeper understanding of science concepts and demonstrating learning through a set of science and engineering practices. These changes will have significant implications for teacher education and professional development, curriculum and instructional materials, and assessment, but are intended to result in improved achievement and a more scientifically literate citizenry. The same day, the conservative Fordham Foundation’s report gave the standards a “C”, saying, in part, “The NGSS grade is clearly superior to grades we granted to the science standards of sixteen states and the PISA framework in the State of State Science Standards 2012 but clearly inferior to those of twelve states and the District of Columbia, as well as the NAEP and TIMSS frameworks.” States will have much to consider as they decide whether and when to adopt the new standards.

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