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Letter to Senate HELP Committee on Mark-up of the Strengthening America's Schools Act (S. 1094)

June 10, 2013

Dear Senator: 

On behalf of the more than three million members of the National Education Association, we wish to offer our views prior to the June 11 mark-up of the Strengthening America’s Schools Act (S. 1094). We appreciate the commitment of the Chairman and the HELP Committee in moving the process forward as we prepare the next generation of students for the 21st century. We will provide positions on specific amendments as the bill moves through the mark-up. 

America’s educators welcome this renewed effort to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the cornerstone of the federal presence in public education. Students, parents, educators, and policymakers on both sides of the political aisle know that the current version of the law, No Child Left Behind, has not worked. It is long past time to replace No Child Left Behind with a fair, flexible, and innovative law that leads to real, sustainable opportunities for all of our students to succeed. To achieve that goal, we must keep equity and fairness front and center, along with shared responsibility. Educators are deeply committed to their students’ success but all of us—lawmakers, parents, administrators, educators, and communities—are accountable for it.  

While the bill before this Committee contains a number of provisions that will help achieve this goal, other provisions raise new roadblocks or simply fall short of what is needed—especially regarding equity—for the nation’s flagship education law that will likely be in place for another decade. 

Among positive steps, the Strengthening America’s Schools Act:   

  • Recognizes the value of early childhood education by supporting the development and implementation of early learning guidelines. High-quality early childhood education is the most cost-effective step our country can take—a common-sense investment we can’t afford to pass up. To reap the full benefits and ensure equity, full-day kindergarten must be available to every child in every state. Making it available will be a helpful enhancement of early learning opportunities for all children, and complement opportunities under Title I.
  • Requires states to publish equity report cards. This new level of disclosure for states and school districts will require reporting not only on funding and achievement levels, but also on access to full-day kindergarten, advanced coursework, and will hopefully lead to a greater infusion of funding and resources for the students who are in greatest need.
  • Requires comparable expenditures in wealthy and poor schools within school districts. The bill does not go far enough, however. Services, conditions, and resources need to be comparable as well.
  • Addresses the school-to-prison pipeline. The bill includes provisions that take important positive steps to reduce disciplinary actions that deny students instruction, facilitate re-entry, support positive behavioral intervention, and establish appropriate reporting.
  • Calls for the establishment of teacher evaluations using multiple measures and educator input. The bill calls for state and local school districts to have professional growth and improvement systems that include evidence of student learning, teacher observations, and other measures that inform teacher performance. Unfortunately, we are still extremely concerned that the bill exempts states currently operating under No Child Left Behind waivers—as a result, few states will actually benefit from this balanced framework.
  • Strengthens the focus on proven strategies for engaging parents, including home visits and outreach. In addition, the bill provides resources to help educators and schools use technology to improve communication with parents and families.
  • Eliminates the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) framework. No Child Left Behind’s goal of 100 percent proficiency was implausible and the interventions it mandated, such as mandatory supplemental education services, are not research-based nor are they showing the kind of improvement that taxpayers and students deserve. Accountability systems should be based on continuous improvements that help educators and students determine what real progress is being made and what needs correcting. No two students learn in exactly the same way or at the same rate, so we welcome this bill’s recognition of this basic education fact.  

These advances are encouraging, but do not go far enough. Specifically, we are concerned that the bill:  

  • Does not do enough to ensure equity. For several years, NEA has been asking Congress to require states to develop and implement equity plans as a condition of receiving federal education funds. We must ensure all children have access to sufficient resources and tools to create quality teaching and learning conditions, especially in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods where inequities exist too frequently. The federal government has always served as an important lever in ensuring equality of opportunity in so many aspects of American life. If federal laws and grant programs can condition receipt of federal funds on other things—such as teacher evaluation systems or state standards—then why is the law silent on demanding the one thing—equity of opportunity—that marginalized populations need? As we approach the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, we hope Congress will make a renewed effort to focus on the very real opportunity gaps in our education system, rather than perpetuate a system that intentionally delivers unequal opportunities and quality to children across this country. We urge Committee members and all Senators to begin by looking at the recommendations of the recent Commission on Equity and Excellence report, issued in February 2013 to the Secretary of Education. 
  • Continues to narrowly focus school accountability on assessments, and fails to address shortcomings in the current approach to assessing students with disabilities. The bill requires nearly as much testing as No Child Left Behind, likely continuing the problem of narrowing of the curriculum. Students have to be looked at as more than a standardized test. Our global competitors understand this. With so many required tests, basing accountability on multiple measures may be possible in theory but impractical. And the narrowing of the curriculum and other problems created by No Child Left Behind’s focus on testing may persist. With regard to students with disabilities, the bill retains the one percent cap on alternate assessments and eliminates the allowance for modified assessments. 
  • Prescribes measures and levels of proficiency, just like No Child Left Behind, while failing to ensure flexibility or sufficient resources to attain them. The bill focuses on federally-mandated college- and career-ready assessments with detailed achievement frameworks, leaving states little flexibility to tailor measures of student achievement to local realities and meet the specific needs of each individual student. 
  • Fails to address shortcomings in the definition of “highly qualified teacher.” The alternative preparation loophole and “checklist” of requirements remain, and performance assessment is not required for entry. Charter school teachers are exempt from HQT requirements. To be eligible for certification, candidates need only to pass a licensing exam—no other preparation is required.
  • Enshrines unproven turnaround models in law. These models involve, among other things, closing existing schools, opening new schools under charter operators, and automatically firing 35 percent of teachers or forcing all the teachers in a school to reapply for their jobs. Instead, Congress should take steps to ensure that struggling schools, especially those in disadvantaged communities, have the resources they need to succeed. 
  • Provides little charter school accountability or public transparency. Charter schools are public schools, so they should be held to the same accountability standards as all public schools. The bill continues the same federal policies that have failed to address long-standing, significant issues of transparency and accountability to students, parents and taxpayers in the charter sector. 
  • Fails to include strong enough collective bargaining language to cover all of the new considerations around educators and staffing. The Improving Secondary Schools subsection of Title I mentions giving school leaders “staffing authority,” but it does not include a construction (savings) clause to ensure such decisions are made in compliance with state laws or local agreements. It also includes provisions dealing with other issues like professional development, curriculum design, instruction, and “educational productivity,” yet does not maintain protections for educators’ voice in their schools.  

Every student deserves a great public school. Our nation must support proven policies AND make the right investments to ensure opportunity for all children, not exacerbate existing inequities in public education—inequities that are harming our students and communities, particularly those of color. Every student deserves committed, caring, and qualified educators. To ensure they get them, educators must be empowered to focus on what is most important: student learning and achievement.  

We thank you for your consideration of our views on these very important issues. We hope that the committee is willing to make improvements in the legislation to ensure that it will provide the greatest opportunities for children most in need. We look forward to continuing these discussions with the Committee as the mark-up process proceeds.   

Sincerely, 

Mary Kusler
Director of Government Relations