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Letter to HELP Committee on innovation roundable

February 02, 2015

Dear Senator:  

On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association (NEA) and the students they serve, we would like to offer our views on innovations that have—and have not—had a positive impact on student learning in advance of tomorrow’s roundtable discussion, “Fixing No Child Left Behind: Innovation to Better Meet the Needs of Students.”  

The original goal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed in 1965 and known as No Child Left Behind since 2002, was to level the playing field for the most vulnerable, including children of poverty, students with disabilities, and English-language learners. Sadly, that goal remains unfulfilled. The current system, particularly under NCLB, delivers unequal opportunities and uneven quality to America’s children based, too often, on the zip code where they live.  

We need to put students at the center of ESEA reauthorization with policies that reflect a federal partnership and support state and local efforts in meaningful, positive ways. Providing every child with a well-rounded education requires addressing the needs of the whole child, not just academics. The reauthorized ESEA should recognize and work to address the many non-academic factors that impact student learning, including wellness, nutrition, afterschool and summer enrichment programs, high-quality early childhood education, and family engagement.  

Community schools are one example of removing barriers to student success by working with local groups to make comprehensive “wraparound” services—sometimes at or near the physical site of the school—available to students and their families. Our members view community school settings positively because they:

  • Create coordinated—not random—systems to address learning needs
  • Shape positive attitudes toward learning, school, and academic achievement
  • Help identify individual learning challenges—and enhance communication among teachers so they are addressed sooner rather than later
  • Meet health and social needs, so children come to school ready to learn
  • Help parents and teachers become partners in educating children  

Research has confirmed these and other benefits. The Annenberg Institute for School Reform analyzed multiple studies, conducted over a six-year period, and found that family-school-community partnerships consistently contribute to better attendance, higher test scores, completing high school, and aspiring to a higher education. (Source: Organizing for Stronger Schools: Strategies and Successes, Harvard Education Press, 2009) 

Another frequently discussed “innovation” is charter schools. NEA supports high-quality charter schools that operate in a manner that is transparent and accountable to parents and taxpayers; ensures equity and access; and solicits and benefits from input from parents, educators, and the communities they serve. We caution, however, that charter schools are not a panacea for solving all education challenges.  

Charter schools are public schools, so they should be held to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools, including those of ESEA. Requirements for the authorizers of charter schools to conduct annual financial audits should be clearer than they are under current law. States should require charter schools to disclose publicly all funding sources (public and private), student attrition rates, and student demographics. 

As for academics, the best studies on charters to date, including the 2013 national study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, show mixed results with regard to student achievement. Charters come out ahead of, the same as, or behind traditional public schools in terms of student growth depending on the subject area, the demographic characteristics of individual students, and the length of time a school has been in operation. While many statistically significant differences have been found, the size of these effects is generally quite small.  

Research also suggests that overall, charter schools underserve English-language learners and students with disabilities and that individual charter schools may be more segregated than other public schools by family income, ethnicity, or race. (Sources: Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards, UCLA Civil Rights Project, 2010 and Schools Without Diversity: Education Management Organizations, Charter Schools, and the Demographic Stratification of the American School System, National Education Policy Center, 2010) 

As this Committee is working towards reauthorization, it is an appropriate time to ensure that charter schools are held to the same standards of accountability and transparency as all public schools.  

Reauthorization of ESEA is an opportunity to set a new vision of shared responsibility for a public education system that promotes opportunity, equity, and excellence for all of America’s students. We look forward to working with members of this Committee to achieve that goal.   

Sincerely, 

Mary Kusler
Director, Government Relations