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Letter to the House Education & the Workforce Committee

February 10, 2015

Dear Representative: 

On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association and the students they serve, we urge you to VOTE NO on the Student Success Act (H.R. 5), scheduled for markup 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 the issues discussed below may be included in the NEA Legislative Report Card for the 114th Congress. 

Our vision

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (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.  

We appreciate that the bill:

  • Eliminates AYP and the arbitrary deadline for 100 percent proficiency. NCLB created the unworkable system of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), which led to a national obsession over testing and inaccurate and unreliable labeling that punished an indiscriminate number of schools and their students. Significantly, the bill 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 standardized test scores.
  • Flexibility to improve. The bill gives states and school districts more flexibility to create standards, assessments, accountability systems. It may, however, tip the balance too far by severely limiting the Secretary of Education’s authority with regard to state plans.
  • Multiple measures. The 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 two standardized test scores for each student.
  • Student assessments. The bill provides for alternative assessments for students with significant cognitive delays, when appropriate as determined by the IEP team; those assessments are not subject to arbitrary percentage caps.
  • School improvement. The bill increases the school improvement set aside to 7 percent and does not include the four prescriptive “turnaround models,” allowing decisions about improving schools to be based on local needs and available supports.
  • Magnet schools. The bill expresses support for magnet schools that can improve achievement and diversity.
  • Restores local parent information resources. The bill changes the name of Parent Information and Resource Centers (PIRC) to Statewide Family Engagement Centers and provides funding for effective parental involvement strategies, developing and strengthening partnerships to meet children’s educational needs, and fostering relationships between parents and their children’s schools.
  • Parental notification. Schools must continue to inform parents about their achievements. We need to take the next step: ensuring that the information they provide is meaningful.

Our major concerns include:

  • Equity. The bill does not push states enough to narrow achievement gaps and provide equal access to quality education. The bill also lacks a comprehensive plan to make transparent and address existing resource inequities that are harming students and communities, particularly students and communities of color. As a result, it is impossible to get a good picture of whether all students are getting the education they deserve.
  • Federal role. The bill dramatically weakens the ability of the Secretary of Education to ensure equity and promote excellence through excessive restrictions on his/her powers.
  • Portability. The state option allowing Title I funds to “follow the child” upends progressivity by providing a flat dollar amount per child instead of greater funding for greater concentrations of poverty. In a nutshell, schools with the most children in poverty lose funding.
  • Comparability. The bill does not strengthen the comparability provision, designed to ensure that Title I funding supplements existing state and local resources so poor students receive the additional services they need. For example, it does not require the reporting of actual expenditures, both personnel and non-personnel, at the district and school level, nor does it require reporting of other services, conditions, and resources such as access to full-day kindergarten and advanced coursework.
  • Equitable participation. The bill inappropriately and dramatically expands private school authority over the allocation and use of public funds by requiring funding to be allocated on an individual rather than a proportional basis—a fundamental departure from current law. As a result, it significantly reduces the already insufficient funding for eligible children.
  • Comprehensive quality education. The bill does nothing to ensure that all children have access to a well-rounded education, including music and the arts. Instead, it continues to overemphasize English, mathematics, and yearly testing.
  • Annual tests. The bill continues NCLB’s measurement of schools and students with annual standardized testing in grades 3-8 rather than focusing on the broad supports schools and students need to improve. NEA supports grade-span testing to provide more time for learning, more flexibility, and more useful, meaningful data to help students achieve.
  • Standards and assessments. Although the bill allows states to enter voluntarily into partnerships with other states to develop and implement standards and assessments, it limits the Department of Education’s ability to support joint efforts to create standards and assessments that are valid and reliable, inform the learning process, and promote college and career readiness.
  • Educator’s voice. The 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.
  • Student assessment decisions. The bill does not provide guidance regarding students with disabilities that have IEP eligibility in areas beyond cognitive delays; we need to ensure that the IEP team drives all assessment decisions.
  • English-language learners. Merging Title III into Title I could lead to a loss of national focus on English-language learners.
  • Charter school accountability and transparency. The bill fails to address long-standing, significant issues of accountability to students, parents, communities, and taxpayers. In exchange for federal dollars, charter schools must be required to be more transparent about their finances, disciplinary policies, boards, meetings, conflicts of interest, and other policies that impact student well-being. Moreover, the bill 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. Governors’ offices are among the “state entities” eligible to receive federal grants even though they are not equipped to oversee or monitor sub-grantees. The bill also permits funding the creation of charter school in states that have not adopted a charter law—by definition, those states have not addressed the many policy issues associated charter schools.   
  • Collective bargaining. The bill lacks clear protection of collective bargaining agreements and memorandums of understanding that are already part of state laws. ESEA should also recognize the role of collective bargaining agreements in constructing teacher evaluation systems.
  • Privatization. Under the new Local Academic Flexible Grant, states reserve not less than 10 percent of their funds for grants to nongovernmental entities—such as private organizations and businesses—for programs outside traditional public school systems.
  • Funding. Overall, authorizations of appropriations are at current (FY2015) funding levels; beginning in FY2016, they remain flat for five years despite projections that enrollment will increase by 4.4 percent and costs rise by more than 12 percent over that period. Even the budget caps under sequestration allow nondefense discretionary spending to grow by almost 13 percent through FY2021. These funding levels are unconscionable at a time when 51 percent of public school students qualify for free- and reduced-price meals and the number of English-language learners and immigrants continues to rise, especially in areas where they have not traditionally settled. Where the bill increases authorization levels, it is at the expense of more than 20 programs whose funding is either consolidated or eliminated. As the summary document accompanying the bill says, “The amount authorized for all ESEA programs under the bill is lower than the Title I authorization for the last year it was authorized under current law.”
  • Maintenance of effort. The bill eliminates maintenance of effort (MOE) requirements, triggering a race to the bottom in state and local spending and violating a driving principle of Title I: using federal dollars to augment state and local support for children who are economically disadvantaged or academically behind. Removing MOE requirements also undercuts the effectiveness of the bill’s remaining “supplement, not supplant” requirements—only in tandem can they ensure that federal dollars provide extra support for struggling students on top of a sufficient base of state and local funds.
  • Funding flexibility. The bill enables states and school districts to use funds dedicated to special populations for other purposes, including other special populations. Although repurposing is limited largely to state- and local-level activities, the provision erodes the historical federal role of ensuring equal opportunity for all children.  
  • Program flexibility. The bill offers states and school districts a trade-off: fewer programs and greater flexibility in exchange for flat funding. It repeals, eliminates, or consolidates 65 elementary and secondary education programs, including more than 20 that are now funded such as School Improvement State Grants, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Elementary and Secondary School Counseling, Physical Education Program, Promise Neighborhoods, and Arts in Education, among others. The Local Academic Flexible Grant replaces such programs.
  • Students in struggling schools need resources and wraparound services. The bill outlines funding guidelines and much-needed services for incarcerated and transitioning youth. Students who are not incarcerated also benefit greatly from similarly targeted resources—for example, individualized learning plans, coordinating health and human services, college and career counseling, and mentoring programs.
  • Educator quality. We need to fix the existing “highly qualified” provisions, not eliminate all focus on the quality of entry-level teachers and paraeducators as this bill does. A critical part of the federal role is paying attention to—and supporting—future educators.
  • Teacher evaluation. The bill inappropriately prescribes certain features of evaluation systems that are better determined collaboratively at the state and local level. While it acknowledges the importance of using multiple measures in evaluation, the bill continues to prioritize the use of one potential component (student achievement) as a “significant factor.” The bill also appears to give priority to using evaluation feedback and data to make personnel decisions, not helping teachers improve their practice.
  • Background checks. NEA supports appropriate background checks of educators in a manner that is fair. However, the bill contains no provisions for appeals, confidentiality, use of funds for background checks, or ensuring accuracy.
  • Support for the entire school staff. The bill lacks sufficient recognition of—and support for—the key roles qualified education support professionals (ESPs) and specialized instructional support personnel (SISPs) play in helping students reach their goals.
  • Professional development. The bill diminishes the focus on professional development and does not provide enough support for professional development for all staff in the school building. While the bill says funds to implement evaluation systems “may” be used for job-embedded professional development to help teachers improve, quality professional development is not required for either teachers or evaluators. People do not just “know” how to evaluate; they must be trained, which takes time and money. The bill should specify that funds MUST be used to train school leaders (administrators, mentor teachers, etc.) in evaluation.
  • Class size. The bill caps the use of Title II, Part A, funds for class size reduction at 10 percent, which will result in the loss of educator jobs. During the 2013-14 school year, districts used 35 percent of their Title II, Part A, funds to pay highly qualified teachers and reduce class size; 12 percent of districts used all their available funds to reduce class size. Fifty-seven percent of the 11,000 teachers supported by those funds were in grades K-3 and 44 percent were in the districts with the highest poverty rates.
  • Direct student services. The bill requires states to set aside 3 percent of their Title I allotment for a reconstituted version of supplemental education services and transportation choice, diverting precious Title I dollars to ineffective interventions at the expense of proven interventions.
  • School improvement. The bill increases the set aside for school improvement activities under Title I, Part A, from 4 to 7 percent, but eliminates the School Improvement State Grants program. While overall funding is about 96 percent of current funding, the bill does not ensure that resources go to the schools and students most in need; collective bargaining protections have been removed as well. 
  • Pay for performance / merit pay. The bill promotes pay for performance and appears to encourage using test scores as the primary metric even though today’s standardized tests are unreliable indicators of student learning and therefore not a valid way to measure performance. Compensation systems should be negotiated or developed collaboratively with educators and their representatives.
  • Literacy. The bill calls for the elimination of existing literacy programs with no provisions to replace them with equivalent services. While the bill includes allowances for family literacy services and outlines specific populations eligible for them, it overlooks the highest-need, economically disadvantaged at-risk population.
  • Homeless education. While the bill maintains a strong commitment to identifying and addressing the needs of homeless students, it fails to mitigate related equity issues. Although the percentage of homeless students varies widely across districts and schools, a majority of states distribute sub-grants equally across school districts. Instead, need should drive the distribution of sub-grants.
  • Career and technical education. States need to consider the career and technical needs of both their high school graduates and industries. On the one hand, the bill is exceedingly prescriptive; on the other, it may not include all necessary stakeholders. In addition, we recommend changing “individual private sector employers and entrepreneurs” to “representatives of the state department of labor.”

 Thank you for your consideration of our views on these vital issues. Again, we urge you to VOTE NO on the Student Success Act in its current form. We hope that the Committee is willing to make improvements in this legislation to ensure that it provides the greatest opportunities for the students most in need.  

Sincerely,

Mary Kusler
Director of Government Relations