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Letter to the Senate on “The Every Child Achieves Act of 2015” (S. 1177)

July 07, 2015

Dear Senator:

On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association (NEA), and the students they serve, we welcome this historic moment as the Senate begins consideration of “The Every Child Achieves Act of 2015” (S. 1177). It is fitting that action on this bill occurs on the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the cornerstone of the federal presence in K-12 education and the commitment to ensure that a zip code should not determine a child’s education. The most serious effort to rewrite ESEA in more than a decade, S. 1177 represents a strong bipartisan effort to improve upon the failed policies of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). It is vitally important for the Senate to get it right this time, especially for the students with the greatest educational needs, including children in poverty. Votes associated with the issues discussed below may be included in the NEA Legislative Report Card for the 114th Congress. We will follow up with separate letters on specific amendments to the bill in the coming days.

To fulfill America’s promise of equal educational opportunity for all, we urge Congress to focus on three core goals in a final ESEA bill:

  • Closing opportunity gaps for students by creating a new accountability system with an “opportunity dashboard,” made up of multiple measures, as its centerpiece.
  • Giving students more time to learn by addressing over-testing, decoupling standardized tests and high-stakes decision making, and giving states and school districts flexibility to determine which tests provide the most useful information to inform instruction and help students learn.
  •  Ensuring that all students have access to qualified educators who are empowered to focus on what is most important: student learning.

As the Senate begins consideration of S. 1177, we wish to note areas in which we believe the bill takes significant steps toward fulfilling those core goals and restoring the original vision of ESEA, including:

  • Opportunity. The bill moves decision-making to the people who know the names of the students they educate while maintaining supports for students most in need. The bill incentivizes supports and interventions tailored to local needs while preserving the historic federal role of protecting the most vulnerable: children of poverty, students with disabilities, and English-language learners. To ensure that states report on opportunity gaps and take actions to close them, state-designed accountability systems must include indicators of school success or student support such as access to advanced coursework, fine arts, regular physical education, and counselors, librarians, or nurses. S. 1177 takes an important first step regarding accountability, but more must be done to achieve the goal of a creating a system comprised of multiple measures or indicators that will lead to closing opportunity gaps.
  • Flexibility. The bill recognizes that the one-size-fits-all approach does not work, and encourages communities, parents, and educators to work together to improve their local schools.
  • Educators. The bill maintains critical professional qualifications for paraeducators and includes expansive language around supports for educators in their early years in the classroom, such as residencies and mentoring.  It also recognizes the role of educators to help identify and solve the needs of students in their schools.
  • Assessments. The bill requires the use of multiple measures of student success in elementary, middle, and high school. It also incorporates the SMART Act to provide funding for states to audit and streamline assessment systems, eliminate unnecessary assessments, and improve the use of assessments.  It also creates a pilot program for state-designed assessments driven by teaching and learning, not accountability alone, and allows all states that meet the criteria to participate in the pilot program.
  • Opting out. The bill maintains the right of parents and guardians to have their children opt out of statewide academic assessments where state and local policies allow them to do so.
  • Early childhood education. The bill enhances access to early childhood education by authorizing alignment and improvement grants to improve coordination of current funding.

As the Senate begins consideration of amendments, we believe there are key areas in which the bill should be strengthened, including:

  • Building on the success of the new accountability system by expanding the “opportunity dashboard.” To help ensure that students are college- and career-ready, we need a fairer accountability system, built around an opportunity dashboard, that includes indicators of school quality and student success, such as graduation rates, as well as indicators of students’ access to resources and supports like advanced coursework, fully qualified teachers, specialized instructional personnel, access to health and wellness programs, high-quality early education programs, and arts and athletic programs. These state-determined indicators, disaggregated by student subgroup, should then be used to quickly remedy any gaps in the resources, supports, and programs provided to students. 
  • Giving students more time to learn by continuing to address 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.
  • Requiring more transparency and accountability from 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. Charter schools need to be held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as other publicly funded schools.
  • Enhancing community schools. Promoting additional ways to serve the needs of the whole child, the research-based community school model, provides “wraparound” services and supports for children and families in high-need communities.

Lastly, we urge you not to weaken the bill with amendments that include:

  • Title I “portability.” Allowing limited funds to follow the student, the first step to vouchers, would dilute the impact of Title I, harm students attending Title I schools, create overly burdensome administrative and accounting headaches for local school districts, and do nothing to address the failure to fund Title I adequately.
  • Vouchers for public and/or private schools. Vouchers divert essential resources from public schools to private and religious schools while offering the overwhelming majority of students no real “choice.”
  • A backdoor “AYP.” Adequate Yearly Progress, the deeply flawed measure central to NCLB, should not be continued, even under a different name. While we would support directing states to include subgroup performance as part of their accountability system;  focusing solely on test scores to identify schools would continue the narrow test-based accountability framework that over-identified struggling schools and failed to create a system for actually helping students most in need. 

We applaud the Senate for reaching this historic moment of reauthorizing the long-delayed ESEA, and stand ready to work with you and your colleagues to make further improvements to the bill. We look forward to the Senate moving S. 1177 through the process so we can get a bill to the president’s desk.  Our students need a law that supports their efforts to become college and career ready learners.  Our goal remains a final ESEA reauthorization that truly promotes opportunity, equity, and excellence for all students.

Sincerely,

Mary Kusler
Director of Government Relations