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Letter to the House opposing the Student Success Act (H.R. 5)

June 18, 2013

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. 5), scheduled for mark-up tomorrow. While the bill contains some positive provisions, as a whole it erodes the historical federal role in public education: targeting resources to marginalized student populations as a means of helping to ensure equity of opportunity for all students. Votes on this issue may be included in the NEA Legislative Report Card for the 113th Congress.  

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is the cornerstone of the federal presence in K-12 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 (NCLB), has not worked as intended. It is long past time to replace NCLB 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.  

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 micromanager—of state, district, and school responsibilities. As innovation and transformation take place at the state and local level, 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, independent research about sound education practice and what students need to succeed; and (3) serve as a clearinghouse of best practices.  

The Kline bill, however, moves too far in the direction of state flexibility, undermining the critical federal role in promoting equity for all students regardless of where they live. An appropriate federal-state-local partnership must ensure that all children, especially those with the greatest needs, have access to an education that prepares them to succeed in the 21st century. We must preserve and strengthen the essential federal role in safeguarding equity of access, resources, and opportunities for the record number of children living in poverty, well as those who are marginalized or underserved.  

Specifically, we are strongly opposed to the bill’s provisions that:  

  • Undermine the historical federal role in ensuring equity. The federal government must play dual roles in public education:  (1) as a partner in supporting states’ and local districts’ improvement and innovation strategies, and (2) as an enforcer of equity of opportunities, tools, and resources. We are very disappointed that, at a time when there are more students and families in poverty than ever, the Kline bill walks away from the federal commitment to trying to level the playing field for students, tipping the balance too far in favor of states and school districts—they are not even being asked to submit plans to demonstrate how they intend to ensure equity of opportunity for students. In particular, we are very concerned that the bill does not push states enough to narrow achievement gaps; provide equal access to quality education; or ensure that state assessment and accountability systems work for all students. It also lacks any comprehensive plan to address existing inequities in public education that harm students and communities, particularly students and communities of color.
  • Eliminate maintenance of effort. We strongly oppose the proposal to eliminate maintenance of effort. Doing so 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 who are academically behind, rather than augmenting those dollars to ameliorate the effects of poverty and other factors.
  • Provide inadequate funding. Authorizations of appropriations are inadequate throughout the bill, as all but the Title I levels are set at fiscal year 2013 post-sequester levels and held constant over five years despite projections of rising enrollments and modest cost increases. A summary document accompanying the bill touts that the “amount authorized for all ESEA programs under the bill is lower than just the Title I authorization for the last year it was authorized under current law” rather than reflecting on how students in poverty will be harmed by limiting their access to resources.
  • Continue lax policies that do not hold charter schools to the same standards of accountability and transparency as other public schools. Charter schools are public schools, so they should be held to the same accountability standards as all public schools. The bill fails to address long-standing, significant issues of transparency and accountability to students, parents, and taxpayers in the charter sector. Moreover, it penalizes states that cap the number of charter schools due to concerns about quality, monitoring capacity, or because they prefer to encourage innovation by other means like magnet schools, career academies, or teacher-led schools. 
  • Undermine teacher quality efforts while dictating how teachers are to be evaluated. NEA’s three-point plan, “Leading the Profession,” includes a call to raise the bar for entering the classroom to ensure that all students have the great teachers they deserve. Unfortunately, H.R. 5 eliminates all focus on the quality of teachers coming into the profession. The bill also diminishes the focus on professional development, not just for teachers but for education support professionals.

Regarding evaluations of teachers, the bill would inappropriately prescribe certain features of evaluation systems that are better determined collaboratively at the state and local level. While acknowledging the importance of basing teacher evaluations on multiple measures, the bill continues to prioritize the use of a single element (student achievement) as a “significant factor,” and appears to emphasize use of evaluation data for personnel decisions rather than helping teachers improve their practice to benefit students.  

  • Undermine state or local agreements that give educators a voice. The bill lacks clear protection of collective bargaining agreements and the role of collective bargaining in constructing teacher evaluation systems.  

While the above provisions raise significant concerns, we are pleased that the bill:  

  • Eliminates Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). The bill eliminates the arbitrary deadline for 100 percent proficiency. Significantly, it retains disaggregation of student subgroup data—critical to monitoring achievement gaps among disadvantaged student populations.

  • Scraps labeling of schools. The bill eliminates NCLB’s one-size-fits-all system of labeling and punishing schools based on high-stakes standardized tests.
  • Provides greater flexibility for implementing school improvement strategies. The bill does not require the four prescriptive “turnaround models” for struggling schools, nor does it require funds to be used for ineffective strategies such as mandatory supplemental education services (SES).
  • Calls for common-sense assessment of students with disabilities. The bill provides for alternative assessments for students with significant cognitive delays, when appropriate as determined by the IEP team, and they are not subject to arbitrary percentage caps.
  • Restores local parent information resources. The bill restores and renames Parent Information and Resource Centers (PIRCs) “Statewide Family Engagement Centers,” and provides funding for effective parental involvement strategies, developing and strengthening partnerships that help meet children’s educational needs, and fostering relationships between parents and their children’s school.  

While these elements of the bill are encouraging, the overall measure falls well short of what is needed in the reauthorization of ESEA. 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 thank you for your consideration of our views on the appropriate federal role in K-12 public education. We hope that the Committee is willing to make improvements in this legislation to ensure that it provides the greatest opportunities for the children most in need. We look forward to continuing to work with the Committee as the mark-up proceeds.  

Sincerely, 

Mary Kusler
Director of Government Relations