Head of the Class: What a Renewed Elementary and Secondary Education Act Could Mean for Grantseekers Across the Country
Friday, April 15, 2011
By Christopher Haight
While Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 and FY2012 budget talks will likely continue to dominate the political psyche for the foreseeable future, other important legislative endeavors remain alive - albeit in a much more latent way. Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has been a standing priority for the Obama administration, as it remains an area of possible bipartisan achievement.
Democrats and Republicans last came together to reauthorize ESEA in 2001 under President Bush in what became known as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, with the U.S. House of Representatives voting 384-45 and the U.S. Senate voting 91-8 in favor of the law. NCLB required students take state standardized tests and measured schools' progress in improving academic achievement every year. The law has since received commendation for supporting improved accountability and standards as well as significantly increasing Federal funding for education - although many claim this increase is still not enough to support the breadth of the law's ambitions.
NCLB has hardly been met with universal approval, however. In addition to criticisms over the level and direction of funding, many have noted that the requirement that states administer standardized tests did nothing to address what constituted adequate standards from state to state. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan aptly captured this sentiment in describing a "race to the bottom" in states setting low academic standards in order to improve the number of students appearing to have mastered the required content.
Current negotiations of ESEA reauthorization are still in the very early stages of bringing together relevant leaders. In the House, the Education and Workforce Committee is holding hearings on reauthorization led by Rep. John Kline (R-MN), Chairman, and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Ranking Member. Although Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) is not expected to be intimately involved in these preliminary steps towards drafting legislation, his previous involvement on NCLB may help ESEA gain traction later as it battles for space in the public consciousness.
Likewise, the Senate is taking steps to consider such a bill. A bipartisan group known as the Big Four, comprised of Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Michael Enzi (R-WY), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), has initiated talks on the Senate Education Committee. Senator Michael Bennett (D-CO), who served as the Superintendent of Denver Public Schools before being appointed to his Senate seat in 2009 and winning his 2010 election, is also expected to be a key player. Bennett not only has the actual experience in the education field, but also is a close ally of President Obama and Secretary Duncan, who served as Superintendent of Chicago Public Schools before coming to Washington.
Meanwhile, state-based and grassroots efforts continue to push new education reforms across the country - even in the absence of official action from Congress. Over 40 states are moving towards adoption and implementation of the Common Core State Standards, which is an historic movement to implement national standards without actually having the Federal government impose them. Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, has also launched a new nonprofit organization, Students First, to advocate education reforms (learn more at http://www.studentsfirst.org/). Rhee became a national figure for reformers due to her challenging of the status quo regarding accountability and teacher pay.
A future ESEA is likely to include many of the same aspects espoused by the administration's Race to the Top program, which emphasized four core areas of reform: (1) High academic standards and assessments; (2) Improved use of data among all education stakeholders; (3) Great teachers and school leaders; and (4) Turning around persistently low-achieving schools. In terms of possible grant programs, there will likely be a revision of the existing menu of options to include a greater focus on professional development for teachers, community or nonprofit partnerships with schools, and emphasis on effective use of technology-enabled learning. Investing in Innovation, the Recovery Act grant program open to school districts and nonprofit organizations, may also receive a more permanent basis of support.
President Obama called on Congress to act on ESEA by September - just in time for the new school year. The timeline is likely too ambitious for the glacial pace by which the U.S. Congress typically operates, but given the auspicious early movements on the law by various stakeholders so far, education reform may get to the head of the class yet.