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Letter to Senate HELP Committee on ESEA

February 02, 2015

Dear Senator: 

On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association and the students they serve, we wish to offer our views on the discussion draft for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) introduced by Chairman Alexander, the “Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015.” We appreciate the commitment of the Chairman and the Committee in beginning the process of reauthorization and are including below our vision for a final bill.  

ESEA, known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for the last 12 years, is the cornerstone of the federal presence in public education. Students, parents, educators, and policymakers on both sides of the political aisle agree that NCLB has not worked—the current system delivers unequal opportunities and uneven quality to America’s children based, too often, on the zip code where they live. Educators welcome the renewed effort to reauthorize ESEA and stand ready to work with members of both parties to complete a reauthorization that fixes this badly broken law. 

As the United States Supreme Court said in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education, education is “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” ESEA reauthorization is an opportunity to move closer to that vision. Toward that end, we have identified three core goals:  

  • Creating a new generation accountability system that includes an “opportunity dashboard”—indicators of school quality that support learning. States and districts should be required to collect data, disaggregated by NCLB’s current population groups, on students’ access to resources and supports such as advanced coursework; fully qualified teachers; specialized instructional personnel; high-quality early education programs; arts and athletic programs; and community services like health care and wellness programs. The dashboard should also include student graduation rates. States and districts, in their applications for ESEA funds, should be required to report their dashboard data and attest that they have developed—through a public process involving all stakeholders—an “opportunity and equity plan” to address the gaps revealed.  

In addition, as the Excellence and Equity Commission recommended, federal financial incentives should be provided to encourage states to develop, adopt, and implement equitable financing mechanisms that provide funding sufficient for every student to meet state content and performance standards.  

  • Ensuring more time for students to learn and teachers to teach by reducing the number of federally-mandated tests. Fewer tests would allow teachers to spend more one-on-one time with students, especially those most in need of extra help, and free up resources to undo the narrowing of the curriculum that has been an unfortunate, albeit unintended, consequence of NCLB. We support “grade-span” testing: once in elementary, once in middle, and once in high school. All students should have access to a well-rounded curriculum, including courses in fine arts and physical education.  

Federal law should call for states and districts to assess the number and quality of assessments being used—determinations made on the basis of input from classroom educators. States and school districts should also have flexibility to determine what kinds of tests will provide the most useful information to improve instruction and help students learn; tests that are redundant or not useful should be eliminated. And educators should not be penalized for telling parents about opt-out options. 

  • Ensuring qualified educators for students and empowering them to lead. 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. In addition, the expertise of accomplished educators should shape policy and practice at all levels. To help ensure it does, incentives should be provided for educator-led professional development and training—for example, in using data to inform instruction, supporting diverse learners, and creating an environment in which all students can succeed using tools such as cultural competence, bullying prevention, and positive behavioral supports.  

We need to build a pipeline of diverse, fully qualified educators—available to every student in every zip code—who are prepared to teach in today’s classrooms on day one. States should focus on the entire spectrum: induction, professional growth and continual learning, and finally teacher leadership. States should be required to publish teacher turnover rates, categorized by years of experience and ethnicity; report on mentoring and induction programs now in place; and identify gaps among high-poverty and low-poverty schools. 

The discussion draft contains a number of provisions that would help achieve these goals. We are pleased that:

  • The draft bill eliminates NCLB’s unworkable Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) system, which led to a national obsession over testing and the inaccurate and unreliable labeling and punishing of an indiscriminate number of schools and their students.
  • The draft bill eliminates NCLB’s one-size-fits-all system of school sanctions and interventions, including the requirement that 20 percent of funds be devoted to supplemental educational services (SES) and choice. This system was created without regard to whether the interventions addressed the needs of the school, without input from educators who work with students in the school, and without considering the availability of high-quality SES providers in or near the school district.
  • The draft bill allows for multiple measures of school and student performance. To ensure success for all students regardless of their zip code, school districts and states must look at more than just the results of two standardized test scores for each student.
  • The draft bill preserves data disaggregation for subgroups, which will help maintain transparency about how schools, students, and subgroups of students are performing.
  • Option 1 of the draft bill gives states great flexibility in designing assessment systems and allows them to limit federally-mandated testing to grade spans, thereby creating the potential for a reduced emphasis on testing and a greater emphasis on teaching and learning.
  • The draft bill calls for committees of practitioners at both the state and district levels to  ensure educators have a say in how dollars are used and the process of implementing state and school district plans.
  • The draft bill treats teacher evaluation as an optional, not mandatory, use of overall Title I and Title II funds (though required in the Teacher Incentive Fund). Teacher evaluations, now at the state and school district level across the country, are most valuable when they are developed with educator input and focused on professional growth (i.e., from the bottom up).
  • The draft bill maintains reporting of graduation rates, including four-year adjusted cohort and extended-year adjusted cohort graduation rates. It waters down accountability for reducing dropout rates, however.
  • The way the draft bill defines Specialized Instructional Support Personnel recognizes that educators other than classroom teachers play a critical role in students’ lives.
  • The draft bill defines Teacher Residency in a positive way that demonstrates why it is so important to focus on induction.  

Other provisions of the discussion draft fall short of what is needed. Specifically, we are concerned that:

  • The draft bill does not require states to submit detailed opportunity and equity plans, and state report cards do not provide enough information to compare equity and opportunity in schools. As a result, it is impossible to get a good picture of whether all students are getting the education they deserve. We continue to believe that an opportunity dashboard is needed, especially since the historical federal role has been to ensure an education for our most vulnerable populations.
  • The draft bill fails to provide dedicated funding for elements of education that help ensure student success, such as high-quality preschool and educational technology.
  • Option 2 in the draft bill continues annual, federally-mandated standardized testing in grades 3-8 and assessment driven by accountability rather than learning.
  • The draft bill increases the amount of federal funding subject to equitable participation, diluting the impact of funds targeted at disadvantaged public school students. School districts’ authority to allocate funds is reduced relative to private school authorities, which are allowed discretion. 
  • The draft bill does not provide a strong voice for educators and their representatives. It eliminates the provision of the current law that respects collective bargaining rights while requiring interventions with implications for collective bargaining.
  • The draft bill eliminates the focus on the quality of teaching, providing no guidance on the meaning of terms such as effectiveness, quality, and licensure. The requirement that all core subject teachers should be highly qualified has also been eliminated.
  • The draft bill does not include a dedicated section on the qualifications of education support professionals.
  • The draft bill does not include language in the current law that gives paraeducators access to professional development.
  • The draft bill calls for an expansion of “alternative route” programs without ensuring that they meet the same standards as “traditional” teacher preparation programs, thereby undermining efforts to raise the overall quality of the teaching profession.
  • The draft bill calls for pay for performance (compensation based on student test scores), a practice unsupported by research, and continues to base accountability on high-stakes testing.  
  • The draft bill requires reporting on staff salary differentials and pension obligations unrelated to the purpose of the legislation.
  • While the draft bill attempts to address problems in the federal role that developed under NCLB, it weakens the authority of the Secretary of Education excessively in approving state plans, in rulemaking, and in the area of waivers, thereby undermining his/her ability to ensure equity.
  • The draft bill allows states to define a potentially unlimited number of schools as “in need of assistance for improving student academic achievement” and then, as part of interventions, allows local education agencies (LEAs) to give all students in the identified schools the right to transfer—and be transported—to other public schools. Instead, the focus should be improving schools in need of assistance.
  • The draft bill largely preserves the status quo on charter schools: continuing the aggressive federal push to expand the charter sector while maintaining weak and inadequate accountability, transparency, and equity requirements.
  • The draft bill fails to increase funding for magnet schools but increases funding for charter schools despite the absence of evidence of broad-scale success and without requiring them to increase transparency, accountability and equity.
  • Overall, the draft bill would freeze federal funding at the fiscal year 2015 level for the next six years, including Titles I, III and VII, with targeted increases for selected programs.
  • The draft bill subsumes dedicated funding for afterschool programs (21st Century Community Learning Centers) under a broader program where afterschool programming is but one allowable use.
  • The draft bill repeals the authority for separate funding for other programs, such as School Improvement State Grants, Promise Neighborhoods, Elementary and Secondary School Counseling, and Arts in Education.
  • The draft bill repeals current maintenance-of-effort provisions, allowing states and districts to reduce their own funding for education.
  • The draft bill includes an option for states to allow Title I funds to “follow the child,” upending progressivity in the allocation of Title I funds—i.e., a flat dollar amount per child rather than greater funding for greater concentrations of poverty. In a nutshell, high-need schools would lose funding.
  • The draft bill does not make explicit that Title II, Part A funds could be used for class size reduction, a declining yet still significant use of funds.
  • The draft bill includes a specific set aside of not less than 10 percent under Title II for the Teacher Incentive Fund, reducing the amount of funding available at the district level.
  • The draft bill enables up to 100 percent of funding to be transferred between Titles II and IV and into Title I, compared to the current 50 percent—in effect, states would have the option of devoting no resources to educators’ professional development and growth or to healthy learning communities.  

Thank you for your consideration of our views on these vital issues within Senator Alexander’s draft bill. We look forward to working with you to fulfill at last America’s promise of equal opportunity for all our students.  

Sincerely,

Mary Kusler
Director of Government Relations