Monday, April 20, 2015

ESEA Bill Approved Out of Senate Committee, With Key Community Schools Wins

In a remarkable act of bipartisanship, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee unanimously approved its ESEA bill, the Every Child Achieves Act, out of committee on April 16. Through the stewardship of Chairman Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Murray (D-WA), the committee worked through over 50 amendments across three days and reached a consensus to move the bill forward.

Community school advocates can point to key wins in this bill, foremost among them that dedicated funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program was preserved. As the largest source of federal funding for after-school and summer learning and a major funding stream for community schools, this was an important victory. In addition, key community schools principles permeate the bill to drive us toward stronger partnerships between school and community, including:

A more comprehensive results framework: The bill requires states and districts in their Title I plans and reporting to describe how they will address issues of school discipline, including suspensions and expulsions, and school climate, including chronic absence. This is a huge step forward to look at factors beyond academic achievement for school and student success, and we believe these indicators will help drive important conversations at the local levels to address issues of equity. 

The bill goes a step further in Title IV to require LEAs receiving Title IV funds for programs geared toward Safe and Healthy Students to conduct a community-based needs assessment. This assessment must take into account indicators of school quality, climate and safety, discipline, and additional risk factors in the community in order to better target funding based on district-level needs. This important step will help communities determine their priorities for student health and wellness, more strongly engage community partners, and align funding streams toward their desired outcomes. 

School-Community Coordination: The bill allows Title I targeted assistance schools to use funds for “Comprehensive services” that include reference to compensation of a coordinator; family support and engagement services; and health care services and integrated student supports to address the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of children. All of these supports, particularly the role of the coordinator, encourages these schools to leverage community partners in order to provide enriching learning opportunities and tackle barriers to learning.

The bill also adds community partners as stakeholders to be consulted in planning and implementation of funds in many places, and references as an allowable use of Title II funds professional development for educators on coordinating services between school and community.  

Greater Emphasis on Family and Community Engagement: While a small step, the bill explicitly opens up Title II funds for professional development for teachers, principals and other school leaders on effectively engaging parents, families and community partners. District and school-level leaders may leverage these Title II funds to provide meaningful professional development around family and community engagement as one important component of the community schools strategy.

We thank once again our nearly 50 national partners who signed onto our letter of ESEA recommendations for their support of these and other key community school principles that drive us closer toward our vision of schools as centers of flourishing communities where all young people succeed.

So what happens next? Chairman Alexander hopes to get this bill to the Senate floor before the start of Memorial Day recess May 22, but a long legislative backlog of issues may prevent that. On the House side, Chairman Kline (R-MN) of the Education and Workforce Committee wants to bring his bill back to the floor after an unsuccessful attempt in February, but first he needs to decide which bill to consider: he could put the Senate’s bill up for a vote or stick with his partisan bill. Either way, the House and Senate’s views on a final bill are far enough apart that a lengthy debate is likely, with the looming threat of a veto from the White House if the bill walks back on the federal role too far.  
We at the Coalition are hopeful that the Senate’s commendable bipartisanship will inspire House leaders to make a strong effort on their bill, since everyone shares the urgency to move beyond No Child Left Behind. Let’s hope for continued momentum, and for a bill that maintains and builds on these community school principles to empower school and community leaders to help all young people succeed.

Mary Kingston Roche is the Public Policy Manager for the Coalition for Community Schools.

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