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Legislative Update: September 19, 2013

After a six-week vacation, you’d think most folks would return to work rested and ready to tackle their urgent assignments. That was not the case this week on Capitol Hill. A week that began with tense conversations about a potential military strike against Syria ended with the House GOP in disarray over how to pass a continuing resolution (CR), which is necessary to keep the government operating beyond the end of the fiscal year on September 30. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) thought they had a clever enough CR strategy to garner the necessary votes of all 218 Republicans. It was apparently too clever for the recalcitrant Tea Party members. The proposal put forth by House Appropriations Committee chair Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) came in two parts: (1) a vote to defund the Affordable Care Act (ACA), action that the Senate would be forced to consider but would most certainly reject; and (2) a vote to fund the government at a level that would keep the sequester in place, around $988 billion, with an expiration date of December 15.

The House leaders knew that Democrats would balk at extending the sequester, but they didn’t anticipate a full-scale revolt from their own team. The idea of defunding ACA has conservatives salivating. Though such a proposal has passed in the House 41 times, the Senate has never been forced to vote on the issue. The CR is considered the best opportunity to force the Senate’s hand, regardless of the fact that the bill would have no chance of being adopted. House leadership hoped the plan to offer conservatives a chance to say that they voted to defund “Obamacare” would be successful, but the Senate refused. Simultaneously, the Tea Party rejected the CR. The plan was deemed “not good enough,” and the vote was cancelled and rescheduled for September 18—maybe.

This battle is the first of three fiscal crises that Congress will face this fall. In mid-October, there will be a vote to raise the debt ceiling. The administration says it will not negotiate, and Republicans say they won’t raise the borrowing limits without equal cuts in spending. If a CR is agreed to with a December 15 expiration date, a final FY2014 budget for the year must be negotiated before that date. The financial gulf between the Senate and House FY2014 budget plans is $90 billion and can be closed only with an agreement on tax and entitlement reforms.

To quote House Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), “In my view, these next six weeks are going to in some ways be a litmus test as to whether America continues to be a great nation that can manage itself rationally and through a democratic process of compromise and agreement.” Let’s hope the Congress passes this test.

Impact of Race to the Top
A new report criticizes the implementation of Race to the Top (RTT) in states that have received this coveted grant funding. The report, Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement: Lack of Time, Resources, and Tools to Address Opportunity Gaps Puts Lofty State Goals Out of Reach,” was released on September 12 and takes a comprehensive look at the RTT program. It identifies a few notable successes but primarily focuses on “many more shortcomings.” The author, Elaine Weiss, national coordinator of Broader, Bolder Approach to Education—a national campaign that focuses on the impact of social and economic disadvantage on schools and students—examines how much progress states have made over the first three years of the grant period, and with only one year left, finds that states are largely running behind schedule in meeting their goals. Key findings of the report’s include the following:

  1. States made “unrealistic promises” in order to secure RTT funding and have found unexpected challenges in meeting their goals.
  2. The narrow policy agenda and short time frame of RTT have hampered state and district abilities to improve teacher quality, while also failing to address other core drivers of opportunity gaps.
  3. Shortcomings in RTT have spurred conflicts among states, school districts, and educators, which have further hindered progress.

Read more about the report.

Common Core Standards and New Assessments
The Center for America Progress (CAP) hosted an event on September 4 to examine the challenges facing states that are working to implement new more rigorous academic standards in the coming school year. Featured speakers included former governor of Michigan John Engler, who is president of the Business Roundtable (BRT), and two chief state school officers, Commissioner Terry Holliday of Kentucky and Commissioner John King of New York, who are leading the nation in this endeavor. Engler made clear the strong commitment that the business community has made to help states implement the Common Core State Standards. He reiterated familiar statistics about the decline in achievement among American students on international rankings and the urgent need for improvement. Carmel Martin, senior vice president of CAP and former assistant secretary for budget, policy, and planning at the Department of Education, served as moderator. She asked both King and Holliday what actions they had taken to prevent parents and the public from rejecting the Common Core Standards, given that the first round of testing indicated a significant drop in the percentage of students showing proficiency in math and English language arts. Holliday said teachers and the relationships that they forge with parents and students are key. Teachers are best equipped to communicate with parents about the need to hold the course to ensure college and career readiness for all students. A second critical factor was a campaign by the business community, alerting employees to the anticipated drop in scores and the need to remain committed to the new standards. King stressed the importance of implementing many of the actions taken in Kentucky, particularly the close engagement of teachers. A new report titled Building the Missing Link between the Common Core and Improved Learning was also released at the event. Visit here for more information about the event.

Education Research
The House Education and the Workforce Committee recently held a hearing, “Education Research: Exploring Opportunities to Strengthen the Institute of Education Sciences.” The hearing provided members with an opportunity to discuss the effectiveness of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES)—established in 2002 under the Education Science Reform Act (ESRA). Featured at the hearing was a report of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examining the effectiveness of IES. It was noted that IES has continuously been a supporter of high-quality research for more than a decade; however, the report found that IES is inefficient in the following areas:

  1. Dissemination of research in a timely manner
  2. Provision of reflective performance measures of current programs
  3. Communication and adaptability of research findings to perspective audiences
  4. Ability to combine program funds to promote prioritization and timely completion for informing policy makers

Visit here for more information, including full witness statements and a recording of the hearing.

Use of the Value-Added Measure
On September 11, the Albert Shanker Institute hosted a panel of three researchers who have studied the value-added measure (VAM). Overall, panelists concurred that the VAM should be a component of a teacher’s evaluation, but expressed different views regarding how this measurement should be weighed in the evaluation. Although the panelists agreed that the current system is broken, opinions varied about the weight, if any, that the VAM should be given in a teacher evaluation. The panelists concurred, however, that teacher evaluations need to include a variety of measures to determine a teacher’s performance accurately. More info 

Professional and Student Learning
On September 12, the Center for American Progress (CAP) released a new report, “Teacher Learning through Assessment: How Student Performance Assessments Can Support Teacher Learning.” The report examines how the design of professional learning opportunities must support the capacity of teachers to teach and enhance student learning through the design and implementation of performance assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards. The report focuses on the need for professional learning communities to incorporate robust professional development that includes teachers in the scoring of performance assessments. The report includes specific recommendations for states, districts, and schools. Learn more.

2013 Back-to-School Bus Tour 
The fourth annual Back-to-School bus tour of the Department of Education (ED) began on September 9. The tour, themed “Strong Start, Bright Future,” got under way with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan traveling to three event locations in New Mexico to discuss the importance of early learning programs, the administration’s efforts to turn around low-performing schools, and the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning. On Tuesday, September 10, Secretary Duncan and department officials traveled to El Paso, Texas, and Columbus, New Mexico, to talk about diversity in classrooms and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. The secretary’s week-long—September 9–13—bus tour also took him to California and Arizona, where he stressed the importance of ensuring that all students benefit from high-quality education opportunities and highlighted the administration’s proposals on preschool for all, college affordability, and ConnectED. More info 

NCLB Waiver Renewal Process
On August 29, the U.S. Department of Education announced that states granted waivers from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) will now be able to apply to renew their waivers to extend them through 2016. The waivers were originally set to expire in 2014, but Congress has failed to pass legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Thirty-four States and the District of Columbia are eligible for renewal. According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in lieu of a reauthorized ESEA, the waiver renewals will allow the federal government to continue supporting state education reform efforts. In addition to meeting the renewal requirements, states may make any additional amendments to their current reform plans. More info 

Elimination of the 2 Percent Rule 
As part of the Obama administration’s efforts to hold all students to higher standards in an effort to ensure that they are better prepared for college and career, the Department of Education (ED) recently proposed new regulations to eliminate the “2 percent rule.” If adopted, states would no longer be allowed to develop alternate assessments aligned with modified academic achievement standards for a number of students with disabilities and use the scores as part of their accountability system. According to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, these alternate assessments “prevent these students from reaching their full potential, and prevent our country from benefitting from that potential.”  The proposed regulations would take effect in the 2014–15 school year. Comments regarding the proposed rule are due by October 7.  Learn more.

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