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Legislative Update: February 18, 2014

Crises were everywhere at the beginning of the week in the Nation’s Capital. Republicans were scheming for another showdown on raising the debt limit, and Washingtonians were raiding grocery stores to prepare for a second “snowmageddon.” Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) was less worried about the snowstorm than he was about the debt ceiling debate. Facing a February 27 deadline for increasing the country’s borrowing authority, Congress managed to pull a plan together. Initially, House leadership planned to link an increase in the $17.2 trillion borrowing cap to a repeal of planned cuts to military pensions. It quickly became clear that such an approach would not be successful, and the speaker brought to the floor a “clean” proposal for an increase, which was passed on February 11. Ultimately, the 221-201 vote relied heavily on support from Democrats. Speaker Boehner was not thrilled about the passage of the clean bill without a debate about spending and federal debt. “It’s the president driving up the debt and the president wanted to do nothing about the debt that’s occurring, will not engage in our long-term spending problem,” Boehner said. “And so, let his party give him the debt ceiling increase that he wants.”

Of course, the Senate needed to act, and Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), famous for his pseudo-filibuster last year and the federal government shutdown that followed, was ready to create a bit of a storm in that chamber. He mounted a filibuster attempt to force a 60-vote threshold for proceeding on the debt ceiling measure. However, a group of Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), joined Democrats to reject the attempt and avoid another potentially politically damaging legislative impasse over spending. The Senate then approved the measure, which should last through March 2015, on a 55-43 vote. Republicans who helped overcome the filibuster voted against the measure to reduce their political risk. By the time the snowstorm hit last Wednesday night, members of Congress had mostly fled Washington and the debt limit debate unscathed. The bill awaits President Obama’s signature.

While members began their President’s Day recess, residents of Washington, D.C., and the surrounding areas were hit late Wednesday night with snow, sleet, and rain that carried into Thursday afternoon. The storm closed federal government offices and every school system in the D.C. area. It’s been a long, cold winter for so many reasons in Washington. Here’s hoping some ice melts during the congressional recess.

Commitment to Accountability 
Representative George Miller (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, expressed concern in a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers issued by the U.S. Department of Education. The letter conveys concern that state waivers reduce accountability, which negatively affects groups such as students with disabilities and English language learners. Miller asserted in his letter, “This is very fundamental—we went through 40 years where we left these students behind, where these students weren’t counted, where these students were invisible,” and further noted, “I want to be sure that as we renew this waiver process, we include poor and minority children, and they do not lose ground.” ED Spokeswoman Dorie Turner Nolt responded in agreement with Miller’s commitment to accountability, stating, “The department shares the same commitment to protecting and promoting equity for students.” Nolt also acknowledged, “The purpose of flexibility is to provide educators with freedom from specific requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act in exchange for rigorous and comprehensive plans designed to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, increase equity, and improve the quality of instruction in the classroom.” More info 

Teacher Evaluation Recommendations
The National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) has released recommendations to help school leaders implement new teacher evaluation systems. The policy brief, Supporting Principals in Implementing Teacher Evaluation Systems, is based on two months’ work by a committee of elementary, middle level, and high school principals drawn across the nation and experiencing certain challenges in implementing new teacher evaluations. Both principal organizations note, “Teacher quality is the single most important school-based factor in student achievement.” The policy brief offers the following recommendations:

  1. Require states and districts to use 10 percent of their Title II funds from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) on high-quality professional development tied to new federal reforms.
  2. Provide high-quality training, credentialing, and ongoing professional development on teacher evaluations for principals.
  3. Respect the professional judgment of principals in the teacher evaluation process and ensure sufficient opportunities for principals to provide direct feedback.
  4. Reduce the number of observations required for teachers who demonstrate effectiveness.
  5. Provide consistent funding for schools to hire assistant principals and other school administrators who provide direct support.
  6. Provide personalized professional development for all teachers to support collaboration and best practices within schools.
  7. Provide principals with effective technology and related tools to facilitate efficient observations and timely feedback.

View the full policy brief.

FCC and Private Companies Pledge New Money for ConnectED
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that it will invest $2 billion over the next two years to support broadband networks in schools and libraries. Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, called the FCC’s commitment a “down payment” to connect 15,000 schools and 20 million more students to next-generation broadband and wireless. The following day, President Obama announced that over the next few years, public-private partnerships with Apple, AT&T, Microsoft, Sprint, the Verizon Foundation, and other companies will contribute $750 million worth of products and free high-speed Internet services to school districts and libraries. Both of these announcements—and the $10 million in distance learning grants for rural schools from the Department of Agriculture—are intended to advance the president’s ConnectED initiative, which has the goal of connecting 99 percent of America’s students to the internet through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless within five years—a goal established after a 2013 report found that more than 70 percent of schools do not meet the minimum goal for Internet connectivity. The FCC is exploring new ways to modernize the E-Rate program that provides $2.4 billion to schools and libraries annually for communications services, and in the absence of additional funding for E-Rate, Congress will need to intervene with more money. The FCC’s new investment amounts to a doubling of investment in broadband that will accumulate from reprioritizing existing E-Rate funds. The new focus will be on high-capacity Internet connectivity, increasing efficiency, and modernizing management of the E-Rate program. Currently, only about half of E-Rate funds are dedicated to high-speed Internet connections. More info 

SOTU Address and Early Learning
More than 1,100 early learning stakeholders participated on a call regarding the State of the Union (SOTU) address, early learning and development efforts, and the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014. Administration officials participating on the call included Arne Duncan, secretary of education; Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services; Libby Doggett, deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning, Department of Education; and, Linda Smith, deputy assistant secretary for early childhood development, Department of Health and Human Services. Secretary Duncan began the call by reiterating President Obama’s sentiments from the State of the Union address. The departments will use a three-pronged strategy on their early childhood initiatives:

  1. Maximize existing resources.
  2. Work with Congress to find bipartisan solutions.
  3. Partner with mayors, governors, the private and non-profit sectors, and others.

He expressed a sense of urgency in meeting the needs of children before they reach kindergarten and said that the Obama administration will “not wait around” for Congress to act. Secretary Sebelius discussed connecting Early Head Start with child care through the new round of Early Head Start competitive grants. Sebelius also stressed the importance of educators enrolling in health-care coverage before the enrollment period ends on March 31. Both Sebelius and Duncan stressed the importance of advocates working at the grassroots level to push for increased funding for early childhood issues and urged them to participate in agency comment gathering. Deputy Assistant Secretary Smith assured callers that her office is doing all that it can to support reauthorizing home visiting programs and again stressed the importance of grassroots advocacy to get the legislative reauthorization process completed. The Education Department clarified that the proposed early childhood education grants will go through a comment-gathering process similar to the process for the Race to the Top-Early Learning challenge. They did not offer a timeline for that process, although grants must be distributed by December 31. More info 

Data Literacy
The Data Quality Campaign (DQC) hosted an event at the Newseum to discuss data literacy and its power as a tool to improve instruction. In opening remarks, Amy Guidera, executive director of DQC, emphasized that data literacy involves more than just teachers understanding test results. It requires a cultural change, not a singular event, she said, and involves teachers taking into account data from many sources to truly understand a student’s needs and modify instruction. Guidera praised the 41 states that have allocated funding in their education budgets for improving data usage and literacy. DQC, in partnership with other organizations, prepared the report under discussion, Teacher Data Literacy: It’s about Time, which emphasizes three critical points:

  1. A common language is necessary to talk about data literacy, beginning with common definitions.
  2. Explicit roles for educators must be defined in terms of appropriate access to teacher-developed data.
  3. A system must be in place to assure that data are used properly, privacy is respected, and the data are of high quality.

Check out the issue brief.

Early Learning Proposals
The House Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing, “The Foundation for Success: Discussing Early Childhood Education and Care in America.” Committee chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) presided over the hearing, which focused on the efficacy and cost of early childhood education and care systems. Kline convened the hearing by acknowledging that the debate on early childhood education and care has taken center stage. Early education, he said, can have a lasting influence on children. However, he cited concern over a “hefty price tag” for the 45 federal programs linked to early childhood initiatives. In response to the Obama proposal for universal pre-K education, he noted that smarter reforms of existing programs should have priority over the creation of another program. Kline’s Republican colleagues echoed this opinion throughout the hearing. Remarks by ranking committee member George Miller (D-Calif.) contrasted with Kline’s remarks by urging consideration and passage of the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, a bill he introduced last fall. Miller noted that parents, teachers, business leaders, and law enforcement agents all agree that early learning can improve everything from education to economic development, especially for low-income young people. He applauded efforts to develop and expand preschool programs through the recently passed federal spending bill. Although all members and witnesses agreed about the importance of early childhood education and care, views of the federal role in supporting such efforts diverged. More info 

Third Annual Digital Learning Day 
The Alliance for Excellent Education celebrated the third annual Digital Learning Day with panel presentations and “Digital Learning in Action” demonstrations at the Library of Congress in addition to more than 2000 local events held across the country and in 30 countries around the world. In the U.S., Digital Learning Day is a nationwide celebration of innovative teachers and common-sense, effective applications of digital learning in schools that support teachers, improve learning, and provide options for students to achieve at their highest potential. Digital Learning Day draws support from a broad array of corporate partners and national membership organizations. View an archived version of the day’s events.

Time Spent on Testing
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Teach Plus hosted an event to discuss a recent report on student testing by Teach Plus, The Student and the Stopwatch: How Much Time Is Spent on Testing in American Schools? This study claims to debunk misconceptions about time spent on student testing and shows that students spend less time on standardized tests than generally perceived. The study “demonstrates that urban students spend an average of only 1.7 percent of the school year taking state- and district-required tests.” The study also emphasizes the importance of quality over quantity of standardized tests. Celine Coggins, CEO of Teach Plus, asserted, “The amount of time students spend taking tests is considerably lower than most people would estimate. It is time to shift the national conversation on testing from the amount of test time to the quality of tests and ensuring that teachers have the information they need to help their students succeed.” Coggins closed her remarks with a few recommendations for district-level policymakers:

  1. Shift the debate from global to local.
  2. Focus on test content over test time.
  3. Proceed with the Common Core implementation.
  4. Involve teachers in the test adoption process.
  5. Work with teachers to streamline testing in high-test districts.

More info 

Early Education
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing, “Supporting Children and Families through Investments in High-Quality Early Education.” Committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) presided over the hearing, which focused on the value of investing in early childhood education. As Harkin convened the hearing, he announced that it kicks off a series of hearings on the topic. He noted that there is no disagreement in the Senate about the lifelong benefits of high-quality early learning, and he hopes that consensus will translate into legislation that is approved this year. Ranking committee member Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) reiterated the importance of early childhood education and care, which he explained that he had experienced first-hand, since his mother was a child-care provider for more than 35 years. “I’m the only Senator who went to pre-K for five years,” he joked during his opening statement. As witnessed showcased programs in their specific regions, they underscored the substantial impact that high-quality early education has on both children and their communities. Although the hearing was relatively noncontroversial, there was disagreement on how to precede with early education initiatives. Harkin is eager to pass the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, which would provide access to pre-K for families earning 200% or less of the federal poverty level. More info 

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