Monday, June 17, 2013

Coalition Principles Gain Traction in Senate ESEA Bill, But Key Tensions around Federal Role Remain

By Mary Kingston, Public Policy Manager, Coalition for Community Schools

Clear Progress for the Coalition’s Principles
Last week, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee marked up Chairman Harkin’s (D-IA) version of a 1,150-page Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) bill (summary of the bill available here).  Now six years overdue, lawmakers acknowledge that states are crying out for reauthorization and have been suffering under the punitive measures of the current form of the bill, No Child Left Behind.  And they see the Administration’s waivers as only a temporary (and to some lawmakers, unconstitutional) fix.

Because it was not a bipartisan effort to start with, Chairman Harkin’s bill predictably passed out of committee on a party-line vote (with all Democrats voting for it, and all Republicans opposing). A couple dozen amendments were offered, most of which fell on a party-line vote as well. Chairman Harkin is hopeful that the bill will make it to the Senate floor as early as this summer, where the committee’s Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN) believes members can have a more robust debate and come to consensus on a bipartisan bill that they were not able to do last week in committee.

Though the fate of the bill is unclear, what is clear is that the Coalition has made great progress in further embedding some of our key policy principles into the bill, making it a stronger bill for community schools and for children, school staff, families and communities. Prior to the markup, Coalition staff submitted to the Chairman line-by-line recommendations to his 900-page 2011 draft bill to strengthen language reflecting our core principles, and the Chairman’s staff told us they found our recommendations extremely helpful, and included twelve or so of them in their bill. The increase in the number of our key terms that appear in the bill as compared to Sen. Harkin’s 2011 bill is also promising, including:
  • Family: 268 times vs. 236 times in 2011
  • Community-156 times vs. 92 times in 2011
  • Partnership-60 times vs. 42 times in 2011
  • Coordination-65 times vs. 49 times in 2011

The bill explicitly references community schools in two places: in Title I, where it lists the “community school model” as an effective strategy for parent and family engagement (pg. 199), and in Title III, again listed as an effective strategy for family engagement as it applies specifically in this section (3115) to Native American and Alaska Native children. In this section, an allowable activity for these funds is: “Implementing community school models and related activities, such as opening school facilities to community-based organizations, establishing parent institutes, operating or supporting co-location with family literacy programs, and establishing co-location with public assistance programs” (pg. 467). The Coalition is pleased that community schools were referenced in these two places, particularly in Title I language that applies to the largest category of students in ESEA, the 11.5 million children that receive the roughly $14.5 billion allocated through Title I. These references in the bill reflect our principle to strengthen family and youth engagement.

We were also happy that the bill maintained a fifth turnaround model in Title I from the Chairman’s 2011 draft bill called the whole school reform model that would allow the community schools model as a permissible intervention strategy for the 5% of lowest-performing schools in each state as referenced under the School Improvement Grants program. This inclusion upholds our principle of ensuring that community schools is integrated as an allowable school intervention model.

The Chairman also addressed our principle calling for a comprehensive accountability framework that goes beyond test scores. As a result, the bill requires states and districts to report on:  school climate data, including discipline and school violence rates; data on pregnant and parenting students in the state; the number of districts in the state that implement positive behavioral interventions and supports; the number of districts in the state that implement school-based mental health programs; and the types of programs schools offer, including the number of AP classes and full-day kindergarten. We see this additional required data as an important step forward not only for transparency purposes but for ensuring more schools are providing the comprehensive supports and opportunities that community schools envision.

These measures represent tangible progress, and since Congress tends to start with the prior version of proposed bills in future debates we believe we have a set a good foundation for when the serious legislating begins.

A Stalemate on the Proper Federal Role in Education
Despite the gains we as a community made in the bill, the bill itself is extremely unlikely to become law. Since Chairman Harkin’s bill got no support from Republicans in the committee, it’s difficult to see many Republicans supporting the bill-even with some Republican amendments-on the Senate floor.

Further, the House education committee Chairman, John Kline (R-MN), just released his partisan bill to reauthorize ESEA, and it is so at odds with Harkin’s bill that it would be nearly impossible for the House and Senate to conference these two bills as they’re written in order to get a bill to the President’s desk. (Kline’s bill, for example, removes the separate categories of funding in Title III reserved for English Language Learners and immigrant students, and merges that into Title I funds as one large block grant). See a summary of Kline’s bill here, and watch the committee markup of the bill on June 19 at 10 am here.

Among members of the Senate HELP committee, it was clear throughout the two-day markup that Democrats and Republicans have a vastly different view on what role the federal government should play, reflecting the current ideologies of the parties and the difficulty for Congress to reach consensus on other issues such as immigration reform or gun control.

Chairman Harkin requires in his bill that states set performance targets for student achievement and produce an equity score card in addition to a more comprehensive accountability framework as noted above.  By his reasoning, these provision will ensure that all students receive an equitable and robust education and that the rights of the most vulnerable students are protected to reflect the original intent of ESEA when it passed in 1965.

Ranking Member Alexander, however, sees these new requirements as a federal overreach to make the federal government in effect a “national school board” that is imposing mandates that if anything should be left to states or districts to decide. Alexander is also upset that Harkin’s bill would uphold the Administration’s waivers that come with many requirements that states must implement, including teacher and principal evaluations that factor in student achievement.

The most contentious argument highlighting the two parties’ difference in opinion occurred when Senators Bennet (D-CO) and Alexander were debating the best way to distribute Title I funds to ensure they go to the kids who most need them. Sen. Alexander offered an amendment that would strike provisions to uphold comparability, which requires that school districts provide services to higher-poverty, Title I schools, from state and local funds, that are at least comparable to services in lower-poverty, non-Title I schools. Instead, Alexander proposed to allow Title I funds to go directly to eligible students in the form of a check that these students could then take with them to any public school they choose. Sen. Bennet decried this strategy as abandoning the law’s original intent to protect the educational rights of these students, remarking that if this amendment were adopted the bill should be renamed Title I, “Increasing the Achievement Gap” to be honest about what it does. Though Alexander’s amendment failed on a party-line vote, nearly all Republicans supported him, once again revealing stark differences in the two parties’ ideologies.

Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), siding with Alexander in his desire to see a significantly scaled-back federal role, repeatedly asked a question that revealed his frustration with federal accountability: “Do we care more about advancing student achievement or about who’s in charge?” This question also revealed how both parties feel that their respective stance on the federal role is the best way to advance student achievement, highlighting fundamental disagreement that will require more robust debate and compromise than a committee markup allows.

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