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Legislative Update: March 18, 2014

Despite many distractions on Capitol Hill last week—the turmoil in Ukraine, the disappearance of the Malaysian jetliner, the war of words between Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and the CIA, and the Republican win in the Florida special election, to name just a few—some education business was on the agenda.

After several months, Jim Shelton was confirmed as deputy secretary at the Department of Education (ED). Furthermore, the Department of Education officially opened an “Office of STEM Education.” The House Appropriations Committee announced that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will defend ED’s budget before the Labor, Health, and Human Services (LHHS) and Education Subcommittee on April 8. And the LHHS Subcommittee also announced that public witnesses will be invited to testify on March 25.

At the same that a brief spring thaw occurred around the Capitol last week, the gridlock that has prevented the consideration of most legislation eased up a bit. A bipartisan bill to direct funds for pediatric cancer research moved in the House at the insistence of Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and Senate action will quickly follow. Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) joined forces to bring the reauthorization of the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) bill up for debate in the Senate, and amendments from both sides of the aisle were made in order. Not be outdone, John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee , indicated that he is also interested in taking action on the legislation. CCDBG has not been reauthorized since it was first signed into law in 1996, so this activity marked a rare moment of true bipartisanship.

After months of negotiation, Senators Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) also announced that they had compiled a list of bills that would be brought up for debate and open for amendments by Democrats and Republicans over the next several weeks with the approval of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.). The list has not been made public, but the announcement alone is worthy of applause. Word also spread last week about a new caucus that had formed in the House and refers to itself as the No-Name Caucus. It is a bipartisan group of 90 members whose goal is to leave political labels behind and solve problems on behalf of Congress.

Fourteen Cities Partner for Better Learning
The National League of Cities announced that 14 cities have entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Education (ED) intended to improve city schools through early learning, high-quality after school programs, and increased post-secondary opportunities. The partnership includes the following cities:

  • Avondale, Arizona
  • Phoenix, Arizona
  • Berkeley, California
  • Dayton, Ohio
  • Gary, Indiana
  • Hattiesburg, Mississippi
  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • Louisville, Kentucky
  • Madison, Wisconsin
  • Memphis, Tennessee
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Saint Paul, Minnesota
  • Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Savannah, Georgia

Chris Coleman, president of the National League of Cities and mayor of Saint Paul, Minnesota, stated, “We are proud to partner with ED in this extremely important effort to provide better educational opportunities to children nationwide… This ‘memo of understanding’ expands a local-federal partnership that is focused on supporting local efforts to improve schools and close the achievement gap.”

Early Education Budget Briefing 
The Department of Education (ED) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) hosted an Early Education budget briefing. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius presented an overview of President Obama’s early childhood priorities in a prerecorded video message. They stressed Obama’s commitment to expanding high-quality early childhood initiatives, including pre-K and home visiting programs. Libby Doggett, deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning at ED, Michael Yudin, acting assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services at ED, and Linda K. Smith, deputy assistant secretary and inter-departmental liaison for early childhood development at HHS, took turns presenting specific funding proposals for early learning. In addition to Head Start ($9.7 billion proposed), the Child Care and Development Fund ($6.1 billion proposed), and “evidence-based, voluntary home visiting services” ($15 billion proposed over 10 years), the assistant secretaries noted that they hope to see other funds dedicated to early learning. Both HHS and ED underscored their ongoing efforts to collaborate between agencies. Learn more about specific information about the proposed early learning budget and other new early learning initiatives.

Charter Schools
The House Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing, “Raising the Bar: The Role of Charter Schools in K–12 Education,” to examine the role of charter schools in improving opportunities for disadvantaged students. Chairman John Kline (R-Mich.) opened the hearing by sharing a bit of history from his home state, noting that in 1991, the state of Minnesota passed the first charter school legislation. Now, 6,000 charter schools are in operation in 42 states and serve more than 2.5 million school-age children. More than 400,000 children are on waiting lists to attend these charter schools. He expressed support for the flexibility that charter schools are offered under federal innovation grants and state charter laws to “pioneer new programs and teaching methods.” He also indicated that because the Senate has not acted to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the House will “explore targeted legislation to support charter school growth.” Committee ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.) agreed that certain charters act as a “bright light” to teach “what is possible … especially for children that may come from the ‘wrong zip code.’” With approximately equal numbers of members representing both sides of the aisle, the overall sentiment from the Republican side—expressed by members such as Representatives Luke Messer (Ind.) and Larry Buschon (Ind.)—was that for more than 20 years charters have acted as pioneers and leaders in education innovation and consequently continued and increased funding makes sense. The general sentiment from the Democratic side—expressed by members such as Representatives Bobby Scott (Va.) and Raul Grijalva (Ariz.)—was that a funding increase was not a matter for concern at a time when the House has proposed to cut funding for other public education programs with disproportionate consequences for disadvantaged students, including English learners and students with disabilities. Both sides discussed school closures and the impact on neighborhoods as well as the role of charter authorizers in openings, closings and accountability for student outcomes. Watch the video.

Teacher Preparation
The Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers cosponsored a recent event, “Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education Conversation Series, VII—The Future of Teacher Education and Preparation.” Michael Feuer, dean of the Graduate School of Education at George Washington University, set the tone of the discussion by noting the rise in public consciousness about teacher quality in recent years and commenting on the direct connection between education and the economy. Feuer reiterated the problem that our nation faces in measuring how effective teacher preparation programs are and how to make them more accountable. Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, began her remarks by stating that novice teachers teach 1.5 million students across the nation, and only one out of every seven students has a teacher that has the ability to teach their students at an accelerated level. Walsh asserted that, currently, teachers who have graduated from a teacher preparation program have no greater effect on students in their first year of teaching than teachers who took an alternative route to teaching. Walsh expanded on her assertion, articulating three factors that are responsible for the fact that teacher preparation programs remain ineffective:

  1. Teacher preparation programs are ungovernable at national and state levels (higher education programs have autonomy).
  2. Higher education goals are different from K-12 education goals.
  3. Teacher preparation programs rely too much on theories and teaching approaches and too little on experience and internship training.

Watch the event.

State Policy Report Cards Reveal a Need for Improvement
The New America Foundation hosted an event, “Making the Grades,” to discuss the effects of state policy report cards on education. A panel moderated by Andy Smarick, partner at Bellwether Education Partners, discussed the nuances of these report cards. State report cards published in 2014 by Education Week, the National Center on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), and StudentsFirst have graded states on their adoption of policies to improve “teacher effectiveness, school choice, academic standards, and outcomes.” Each organization looked at different objectives to analyze states and came to vastly different conclusions, but all three organizations agreed that much work remains to be done to improve America’s schools. Using more than 100 total factors to rank schools, Education Week ranked Maryland as a top performing state and South Dakota as the lowest performing state. StudentsFirst was the only organization to place a high value on school choice policies and in doing so gave Louisiana the top overall score, while North Dakota received the lowest overall score. NCTQ focused much of its evaluation on teacher preparedness and continued effectiveness, giving Florida the top marks and putting Montana at the bottom. Watch the event.

FY 2015 Budget
The Senate Budget Committee held a hearing, “The President’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 Budget Proposal.” Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) presided at the hearing, which focused on the president’s proposed funding levels for each federal agency in FY 2015. In convening the hearing, Murray noted the fiscal setbacks that delayed the president’s delayed budget request, and then she announced that the appropriations process for FY 2015 will be on time, thanks to the two-year budget agreement, the Bipartisan Budget Act, that she and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, agreed on in January. Murray spoke about the long-term deficit reduction and the short-term goals of creating jobs, improving education, and investing in our nation’s future—results that she believes can be achieved through the president’s Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative. Ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) noted past testimony in the Senate Budget Committee from Douglas Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office, who declared, “America is on an unsustainable fiscal path that will end in a fiscal crisis.” Sessions remarked that he was surprised to see that the president had asked for increased spending, surpassing the statutory caps set in the Bipartisan Budget Act. He calculated that the president’s budget request would add $8 trillion to the nation’s debt, increasing the deficit from $17 to $25 trillion dollars. Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), also testified at the hearing and mentioned a few of President Obama’s main education initiatives, including the following:

  • Preschool for all
  • New Race to the Top opportunity and equity grants
  • ConnectED
  • A new ConnectEDucators program
  • College opportunity and graduation bonuses
  • Expanded Pay As You Earn (PAYE) repayment options
  • A new competitive community college job-driven fund

View an archived webcast.  

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium Discusses “Assessability” 
WestEd hosted a webinar, “Smarter Balanced A&A Showcase” to discuss the universal tools, designated supports, and accommodations that are available for the assessments developed by Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia (SBAC). Magda Chia, SBAC’s director of support for under-represented students, highlighted the various tools, resources, and information available to school leaders, teachers, parents, advocates, and students as states prepare to give millions of students the pilot Common Core assessment in English language Arts and mathematics (in SBAC states) this spring. Chia reminded everyone that SBAC has developed several resources and policy documents to help school leaders and teachers know how to implement the SBAC assessment. The resources that Chia highlighted included the following documents:

  • “Frequently Asked Questions”
  • “Usability, Accessibility, and Accommodations Implementation Guide”
  • A state assessment policy document that includes guidelines (approved by SBAC states) for providing accommodations to students with disabilities

Chia explained that the process of ensuring that all students are adequately supported and have access to both embedded and non-embedded features available by means of today’s advanced technology was shaped by a paradigm shift in understanding how students should be supported in a computerized testing environment. Chia stressed that the shift has created an understanding that all students should have extensive access to the technology and be able to access features that support their ability to take a reading and math test, with some consideration for test validity. Chia defined three distinct ways that SBAC supports all students, including English language learners and students with disabilities, during assessment time:

  • Universal tools (both embedded and non-embedded are available to all students)
  • Designated supports (both embedded and non-embedded are available to all students with adult supervision and decision making)
  • Document accommodations (both embedded and non-embedded are available to students whose individualized education programs (IEPs) or 504 plans indicate the necessity)

She then previewed how the online practice and training tests work for any student and encouraged the community to go online and test all the tools. She emphasized that the training test is a streamlined method for teachers to quickly show students how the test will look and have students experience their ability to access supports inside the testing platform. She noted that the practice test is much longer than the training test. Chia demonstrated how students can use tools such as “masking” text to help eliminate text or answers as they work through a test item, spell-check on written responses, and search language glossaries that are available in more than 10 languages, including specific dialects. The SBAC pilot test will be rolled out this spring in about 20 states.

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