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Letter on the Every Student Succeeds Act

December 02, 2015

Dear Member of Congress:

On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association (NEA) and the students they serve, we strongly urge you to Vote Yes for the Every Student Succeeds Act (S. 1177). We applaud the bipartisan leadership undertaken to shepherd the bill through both chambers and conference committee. For 14 long years, students and educators have lived under the deeply flawed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. S. 1177 ends the failed one-size-fits-all approach of recent years and instead empowers local educators, parents and communities to collaboratively make education decisions as well as continuing to require that states and districts address students most in need. Votes associated with this issue will be included in NEA’s Legislative Report Card for the 114th Congress.

It is fitting that this vote coincides with the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). A major impetus for that law was the unanimous, landmark ruling of the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, in which it declared that education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” A great education inspires students’ natural curiosity, imagination, and love of learning. Schools and educators that nurture these values today are growing tomorrow’s inventors, thinkers, artists, and leaders. It is well past time to correct course and focus on facilitating this growth and laying the foundation for student success. To do that, our education system must be committed to closing opportunity and resource gaps by providing the support, tools, and time to learn that every student deserves.

The Every Student Succeeds Act reflects NEA’s core principles for ESEA reauthorization:

  • The inclusion of student and school supports in state accountability plans to create an opportunity ‘dashboard’;
  • reducing the amount of standardized testing in schools and decoupling high-stakes decision making and statewide standardized tests; and,
  • ensuring that educators’ voices are part of decision making at the federal, state and local levels.

Facilitating state, district, and school-level decision making will be vital to the successful implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Restrictions on the U.S. Secretary of Education’s authority exist throughout the bill and are focused on prohibiting the secretary from dictating specific mandates. These include mandates on: standards and assessments, how much elements of the accountability plans should count for or even the criteria themselves, parameters of the accountability system, additional data collection, exit requirements, teacher evaluation, and the definition of teacher effectiveness.

More Opportunity for All Students

The bill provides avenues for identifying and beginning to close opportunity gaps by, for the first time, including indicators of school success or student support in the accountability system. S. 1177 requires state-designed accountability systems to include at least one indicator of school success or student support—such as access to advanced coursework, school climate and safety from incidents of  bullying,  fine arts, regular physical education, and counselors or nurses—to ensure that states report on opportunity gaps and take action to close them. It also requires the use of multiple measures of student success in elementary, middle, and high school.

Less High-Stakes Testing

S. 1177 includes less focus on and a decoupling of, the high-stakes associated with standardized tests, so students have more time to learn and teachers have more time to teach. While continuing to require annual tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school, the bill eliminates NCLB’s rigid system of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) aimed at 100 percent proficiency in deference to state defined goals. The bill also allows districts to apply to instead use another nationally recognized assessment in high school instead of the state standardized tests.

Further, the bill incorporates the SMART Act to provide funding for states to audit and streamline assessment systems, eliminate unnecessary and duplicative assessments, and improve the use of assessments. It also allows states to set a cap limiting the time students spend taking annual tests.  S. 1177 creates a pilot program for state-designed assessment systems that allow for local district assessments driven by teaching and learning, not accountability alone, and allows all states that meet the criteria to participate.

Demonstration of the bill’s focus on local decision making is further illustrated in the maintaining of the right of parents and guardians to opt their children out of statewide academic assessments where state and local policies allow them to do so.

Educator Voice

S. 1177 empowers educators with a greater voice in educational and instructional decisions. This begins with the bill’s incentivizing supports and interventions that are tailored to local needs while preserving the historic federal role in protecting the most vulnerable: children of poverty, students with disabilities, and English-language learners.

Providing educators the resources, mentoring and support every professional needs is crucial to fostering student success. S. 1177 maintains paraeducator qualification requirements and requires paraeducator voice in multiple relevant sections of the bill, including as it relates to professional development. It also protects state and local collective bargaining agreements and allows those to cover educator provisions in Title II, including all of the professional development provisions and the Teacher Incentive Fund, and ensures that educators and their local unions have a say in their professional development continuum.

In addition to advancing these core principles, S. 1177 also provides greater access to early childhood education by authorizing alignment and improvement grants to improve coordination of current funding. It establishes full service community schools program to promote additional ways to serve the needs of the whole child, including wraparound services and supports for children in high-need communities. And, importantly, does not include Title I portability. This exclusion is vital because Title I portability dilutes the impact of Title I funds, is harmful to students attending Title I schools, and portability does nothing to address the failure to fund Title I adequately.

We urge you to Vote Yes for the Every Student Succeeds Act (S.1177) because it will help ensure that all students, regardless of their zip code, will have the support, tools, and time to learn that they need to succeed and that educators’ voices are part of the decision making process at all levels. Students who are high school seniors this year have spent their entire K-12 experience under NCLB. It is long past time to fix this broken law and give the next generation of students the resources and support they need.

Sincerely,

Lily Eskelsen Garcia

President