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Letter to the House Education and the Workforce Committee Opposing Kline ESEA Bills

February 27, 2012

Dear Representative:


On behalf of the more than three million members of the National Education Association (NEA), we would like to express our opposition to the Student Success Act (H.R. 3989) and Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act (H.R. 3990), scheduled for mark-up this week.  Although the bills do contain several positive provisions as outlined below, we believe they walk away from the critical federal role in ensuring equity in education for all students.  In addition, they go too far in prescribing terms of teacher evaluation systems at the federal level – a role more appropriate for states and local school districts.  While we will provide positions on specific amendments throughout the mark-up, we do note that actions in committee on the issues discussed below may be included in the NEA Legislative Report Card for the 112th Congress.

The key to a successful reauthorization will be striking the appropriate balance in federal and state roles.  Current law tips the balance too far in favor of the federal government, with overly prescriptive, one-size-fits-all systems.  The federal government should be a supporter – not a micro-manager – of state, district, and school responsibilities.  Schools, districts, and states – not the federal government – are the engines of school transformation.  As innovation and transformation takes place at the state and local levels, the federal government has an obligation – consistent with the original intent of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 – to : 1) ensure that states and localities are held accountable for ensuring equity of opportunity for all students, 2) invest in robust, ongoing and independent research about sound education practice and what students need to succeed, and  3) serve as a clearinghouse of best practices. 

We would also like to see the U.S. Department of Education institutionalize meaningful and broad engagement of education practitioners in how to convert research findings into practical, usable tools to improve the quality of education for all students.  Finally, to accelerate the pace of transformation at the state and local levels, states and districts need sustained resources and well-designed federal policies that support collaborative, sustainable work to ensure every student a great public school that serves the full range of his or her needs.   

The Kline bills, however, move too far in the other direction on state flexibility, undermining the critical federal role in ensuring equity for all students regardless of where they live.  An appropriate federal-state partnership must ensure that all children, especially those with the greatest needs, have access to an education that will prepare them to succeed in the 21st century.   At a time when one of every five children in America lives in poverty, we must preserve and strengthen the essential federal role in safeguarding equity of access, resources, and opportunities for students who are marginalized or underserved.  

The Kline bills, however, do make some positive changes to improve current law, including:

  • Adequate yearly progress – eliminating the arbitrary deadline for 100 percent proficiency while retaining disaggregation of student subgroup data – a critical piece to monitor achievement gaps among disadvantaged student populations.
  • Labeling of schools – eliminating No Child Left Behind’s one-size-fits-all system of labeling and punishing schools based on standardized tests.
  • Assessment of students with disabilities – providing for alternative assessments for students with significant cognitive delays when appropriate as determined by the IEP team and not subject to arbitrary percentage caps.
  • English Language Learners – providing students time to learn English prior taking some tests in the English language, continuing support for native language assessments for English Language Learners where appropriate, and supporting programs and instruction based on evidence-based research and standards for English language proficiency.

However, despite these positives, the Kline bills contain some significant negatives that will impact students with the greatest needs, including:

  • Equity – The federal government must balance support of states and local districts’ efforts with its critical role in ensuring equitable access to a quality education.  This role was borne out of massive educational disparities, as many states historically failed to ensure adequate resources and supports.  We are very disappointed that, at a time when there are more students and families in poverty than ever, the Kline bills walk away from the federal commitment to ensuring equity, tipping the balance too far in favor of states and districts.  In particular, we are very concerned that the bills do not push states enough to narrow achievement gaps; provide equal access to quality education; or ensure that state standards, and assessment and accountability systems work for students.  They also lack any comprehensive plan to address existing inequities in public education that harm students and communities, particularly students and communities of color.
  • Maintenance of effort -- We strongly oppose the proposal to eliminate Maintenance of Effort.  This will trigger a race to the bottom in state and local support for public education, often under the guise of fiscal distress.  The driving principle behind Title I would be upended, as federal dollars would be reduced to backfilling holes in state and local support for economically disadvantaged children and those academically behind rather than augmenting those dollars to ameliorate the effects of poverty and other factors.
  • Funding -- The Kline bills provide significant new flexibility for districts and states to transfer money aimed at special populations—such as English Language Learners, American Indians/Alaska Natives, or neglected students—for other uses.  This could undermine the historical federal role of ensuring equal opportunity for all children in these special populations.  In addition, the bills offer states and local districts a trade-off – fewer programs and greater flexibility in exchange for less money.  Simply put, there would not be enough funding for the supports and resources necessary to close achievement and opportunity gaps and ensure equity for all.  Programs proven to help close these gaps would remain significantly underfunded and not able to provide full services to all students who need them. 
  • Annual tests -- The bills continue No Child Left Behind’s focus on measuring schools and students through annual standardized testing in reading and math in grades 3-8.  This narrow focus has created the counter-productive phenomena of teaching to flawed tests, narrowing the curriculum, and a de-emphasis on educating the whole child with 21st century skills.  Reducing the number of federally-mandated standardized tests back to grade span testing (once in grades 3-5, once in middle school, and once in high school) would allow better assessment systems that measure both growth in student performance and assess higher order thinking skills.  These assessments would be used in a way that truly guides instruction and targeting of supports to students.  Grade span testing would provide more time for learning, more flexibility, and more useful data to help students achieve.  Educators across the country have been clamoring for REAL assessment systems that help them teach, rather than systems that do nothing more than label and punish.
  • Teacher quality -- The bills eliminate all focus on quality of teachers coming into the profession.  In addition, they diminish targeting of Title II funds to students in poverty.  A focus on teacher quality is particularly important in high poverty communities, as too often these schools are filled with the most inexperienced and least skilled teachers.
  • Class size.  The proposals limit class size reduction efforts to 10 percent of Title II (current use is about 38 percent).  Students benefiting the most from class size reduction efforts are disadvantaged students in the early grades.  If this funding is capped, local districts may not continue paying educators previously funded through federal class size reduction funds, leading to a direct decrease in services for students most in need.
  • Federal involvement in teacher evaluation.  The focus of teaching evaluation systems should be to improve individual, as well as whole school, teaching practice so students benefit from the best teaching.  Development of these systems must take place collaboratively and at the state or local level.  The federal government should not dictate the components of evaluations.

    We do not dispute that there is a significant need to establish comprehensive systems of teacher evaluation that improve teacher practice and drive improvements in student learning.  In fact, we have taken the lead as a union in proposing an ambitious framework for not only evaluation systems, but for the improvement of the teaching workforce.  (Leading the Profession: NEA’s Three-Point Plan for Reform, http://www.nea.org/leadingtheprofession).  However, we fundamentally disagree that the federal government is best positioned to dictate what those systems should look like.  In no other sector of employment does the federal government dictate to states, municipalities, or private entities the terms and conditions of how to evaluate the employees’ performance.  These bills would inappropriately prescribe and mandate from the federal level many features of teacher evaluations systems, a function better determined collaboratively at the state and local level.  There is already an enormous amount of activity at the state and local level regarding the establishment or enhancement of teacher evaluation systems.  More federal involvement stands to either conflict with or impede work better left to states and localities.  Again, the federal government has never dictated to Governors or Mayors how to evaluate other public employees, so wading into this arena for teachers sets an enormous precedent in federal involvement in what is fundamentally an employee-employer matter. 
  • Collective bargaining /Educators' Voice.    The bills lack clear protection of collective bargaining agreements and the role of collective bargaining and/or educators' voices in constructing teacher evaluation systems.  In addition, they remove existing protections of collective bargaining agreements in developing and implementing school improvement plans, effectively overriding state laws.  Collective bargaining allows educators – who are in the classroom every day and know what their students need -- to raise concerns and propose solutions about class size, school safety, and other important teaching and learning conditions.  Failing to protect educators' rights to a voice in the very conditions of their employment and the teaching and learning conditions that impact their students is a grave error.  We fundamentally disagree with how the bills address where and how these types of decisions should be made.  In fact, the bills are inconsistent in their philosophical approach of handing much authority and autonomy back to the states and districts, but shutting out the voices of some of the most critical stakeholders – educators.

As Congress reauthorizes ESEA, we should remember the days before ESEA when generations of children were denied the basic educational opportunities they deserved.  We should judge proposals on whether they will strengthen our educational system, or whether they will move us backward.  And, we should look forward – to consider the needs of our nation in the 21st century and judge proposals on whether they will help us build a competitive workforce and strong democracy.  We believe the Kline bills do not meet these essential tests.  We urge your opposition to the Student Success Act (H.R. 3989) and Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act (H.R. 3990).

Sincerely,

Kim Anderson  
Director, Center for Advocacy

Mary Kusler
Director of Government Relations