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Letter to the Senate HELP Committee

April 13, 2015

Dear Senator:

On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association and the students they serve, we would like to discuss our vision for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and how the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, scheduled for markup tomorrow, measures up. We recognize there have been and will continue to be adjustments made to the bill. While important areas of improvement are still needed to help students, we believe the bill is moving in a positive direction. We will provide our views on select amendments to the bill tomorrow.

The last time ESEA was reauthorized, Congress did not listen enough to educators and parents—the result was No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which has not benefitted students nearly as much as intended and, in fact, has had many unintended negative consequences. Congress now has an opportunity to correct course and fulfill the original intent of ESEA. Fittingly, your work this week comes on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the signing of ESEA into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who appropriately said, “Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.” It is time to make good on that promise.

Reauthorization of ESEA is an opportunity to set a new vision of shared responsibility for public education that promotes opportunity, equity, and excellence for all students. Toward that end, we have urged Congress fulfill three core goals:

  • Creation of a new accountability system with an “opportunity dashboard” as its centerpiece. The dashboard should include data on attendance and graduation rates, as well as students’ access to resources and supports such as advanced coursework, fully qualified teachers, specialized instructional personnel, high-quality early education programs, and arts and athletic programs.
  • Giving students more time to learn by addressing over-testing and decoupling the tests from high-stakes decisions. Less high-stakes testing would allow teachers to spend more one-on-one time with students, especially those most in need of extra help, and undo narrowing of the curriculum. States and school districts also need flexibility to determine which tests provide the most useful information to help educators improve instruction and help students learn.
  • Ensuring all students have access to qualified educators who are empowered to lead. Every student deserves committed, caring, and qualified educators who are empowered to focus on what is most important: student learning. To help ensure that the expertise of accomplished educators shapes policy and practice, incentives should be provided for educator-led professional development for all school personnel, including education support professionals.  

The Every Child Achieves Act takes a number of steps in the right direction, but also has drawbacks that should be improved going forward. We do want to acknowledge the leadership of Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Murray in making these significant improvements in the manager’s package:

  • The addition of multiple measures of success used by elementary and middle schools. The initial draft bill already included multiple measures for high schools.
  • The requirement of student support and school success indicators in state-designed accountability systems, such as access to advanced coursework, access to school counselors or nurses, and access to fine arts and regular physical education. Requiring such indicators is necessary to ensure that states report—and act on—opportunity gaps in order to provide all students with the tools and resources needed to succeed.  

Detailed analysis

Additionally, we are pleased by provisions of the bill in these key areas:   

  • Voice of educators. The bill acknowledges the critical role of all educators: principals, teachers, education support professionals (including paraeducators), and specialized instructional support personnel (like school counselors). It also promotes school leader and teacher residency programs. We are hopeful the bill can be strengthened so that committees of stakeholders can diagnose and propose improvement plans for struggling schools.
  • Accountability system. The bill replaces the unworkable system of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in NCLB that led to the intense focus on over-testing and unfair labeling and punishing of schools. It also replaces the one-size-fits-all system of sanctions and interventions—including the requirement to devote 20 percent of funds to supplemental educational services (SES) and school choice—with a more flexible system: locally determined supports and interventions based on a needs assessment in the identified school. The disaggregation of data for racial, ethnic, and other subgroups of students is preserved, which will help maintain transparency about how schools and students are performing. The bill also allows for alternative standards and assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities.
  • School quality and climate. The bill requires state report cards to include information on indicators such as discipline, absenteeism, bullying and harassment, teacher retention, expenditures and class size, as well as data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
  • Labor-management collaboration. The bill strengthens labor-management collaboration by retaining the savings clause (collective bargaining protections) in Title I and adding it to Title II.
  • Funding. Unlike H.R. 5, this bill preserves maintenance of effort provisions—to preserve state investment in our schools—and does not include Title I portability. The bill also allows funding to be used to improve equitable access to teachers, principals, and other school leaders, and to reduce class sizes for low-income and minority students.
  • Family engagement. The bill expands the language governing parent involvement to include extended family and guardians.   

At the same time, we are concerned that the bill falls short in these areas:  

  • Closing opportunity gaps. While the manager’s package moves in a better direction, the bill should go further in helping to close opportunity gaps by requiring a broader range of student support and school success indicators to be part of the accountability system, and ensuring that states are held accountable for closing those gaps. Closing opportunity gaps is our highest priority because it will do the most to help ensure students are college- and career-ready.
  • Testing. The current mandatory testing regime is left intact, with all 17 tests required by NCLB continuing—14 in reading and mathematics (annually in grades 3-8, once in high school) plus 3 in science (once in elementary, middle and high school), meaning students will still have less time available for learning than they should. Simply put, this bill does nothing to reduce the excessive testing happening across the country. It does not address the number of federally-mandated tests, nor does it require states and districts to take steps to stop the overuse and misuse of tests throughout the school year.

The bill would be improved with the inclusion of grade-span testing (once in elementary, middle and high school) to allow students to focus more on critical thinking and less on rote memorization. We believe the bill’s pilot state-designed assessment system should be accessible to all states that meet the criteria; arbitrarily determined factors should not curtail the expansion of innovation, especially since the pilot is an opportunity to create assessment systems driven by teaching and learning factors rather than accountability alone.

  • School segregation. The provision on public school choice does not include language to prevent re-segregation of schools. At a time when our student population is becoming more diverse, federal policy must ensure that diversity is recognized as a national strength and that we do not take a step backwards from the gains of Brown v. Board of Education with respect to school integration.
  • Educator pay/qualifications. The bill promotes pay for performance, which research shows does not work. Additionally, states should be encouraged to ensure that all educators are profession-ready and that they have the supports needed to be successful.
  • Student performance. The bill is inconsistent in that it allows alternative assessments for students with disabilities, but then continues the arbitrary cap of 1 percent on the number of such students who may take them. We believe parents and educators can better make this decision on an individual student basis. The bill also eliminates programmatic focus/national attention on student access to AP/IB programs and dropout prevention initiatives. Additionally, English-language learners are not given enough time to attain proficiency before their test scores are used for accountability purposes.
  • Charter schools. The bill largely preserves the status quo: an aggressive federal push to expand the charter sector coupled with weak and inadequate requirements for accountability, transparency, and equity.
  • Funding. The bill fails to provide dedicated funding for key elements of education that help ensure student success, such as high-quality preschool, educational technology, after-school programs, and Promise Neighborhoods; instead they are reduced to “allowable uses.” The “pay for success” initiatives in Title IV raise a host of concerns, including the potential to outsource public education services.

Again, we are hopeful that further improvements will be made to address equal educational opportunities for students and look forward to working with you this week to ensure that the bill helps the students it is intended to serve. Our goal remains a final ESEA reauthorization that truly promotes opportunity, equity, and excellence for all students.  

Sincerely,

Mary Kusler
Director of Government Relations