Congress is considering an eight-years overdue reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), whose most recent version we call No Child Left Behind (NCLB). A couple of weeks ago, debate on a House Republican version broke down just before a scheduled vote on the House floor. Many have speculated that the cancelled House vote portends that Congress cannot find consensus on this complicated and politically polarizing piece of legislation. After all, Congress has tried for a reauthorization twice before on the current NCLB version and failed both times.
But this year’s Congressional debate is not dead yet. John Kline (MN-R), Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee says he will still bring his committee’s bill to the House floor for a vote—perhaps next week. Senator Lamar Alexander (TN-R), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee , and Patty Murray (WA-D), the ranking Democrat, say they are working hard to move a bipartisan Senate version of the legislation forward for mark up in mid-April. Although it is hard to imagine that the far-right House version, even if it were to pass, could be reconciled by a conference committee with any bipartisan Senate version, the legislation is still moving forward in the Senate, and advocates are still trying to influence what will be in it.
On Monday a broad based coalition of education and civil rights groups released a strong statement asking Congress to return the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to the original purpose for which it was passed in 1965, as a response to the Civil Rights Movement and as the centerpiece of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty: “Evidence continues to mount that the current approach embedded in ESEA, which strays from its original civil rights orientation of compensating for funding inequities, and which focuses on testing as the key means of accountability, is failing to produce the progress necessary, and is causing real harm… In this context, we urge Congress to make comprehensive supports for disadvantaged students the highest priority in a reauthorized ESEA. While we strongly endorse the importance of setting high, meaningful standards for all students, we assert that reaching them requires, first, laying the right foundation, and supporting schools and states as their students strive to meet the standards. We also caution that failing to lay that foundation or offer that support is more likely to widen current gaps than to narrow them.”
The statement’s sponsors—the School Superintendents Association; Annenberg Institute for School Reform; Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education; Center for Teaching Quality; First Focus Campaign for Children; National Superintendents Roundtable; National Opportunity to Learn Campaign; Horace Mann League of the USA; and Kevin Welner, of the National Education Policy Center—endorse five principles which they believe, embody “the original spirit and intent” of ESEA: address disparities in opportunity early with funding for high-quality pre-kindergarten and family supports; help states, districts, and schools with supports for nutrition, health, counseling, guidance, and emotional health supports; ensure enriched activities for students before and after school; align out of school supports for families and children with efforts of schools; and stop misusing assessments.
With the release of their statement on the reauthorization of ESEA, these organizations are also positioning themselves to speak to what is likely to be an ugly and protracted debate on the President’s budget proposal. After several years of flat funding, President Obama has requested an increase for education, with emphasis on key formula programs including Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Lauren Camera reports for Education Week that, “Overall, the president wants $70.7 billion in discretionary spending for the Education Department, an increase of $3.6 billion, or a 5.4 percent hike over fiscal 2015 levels.” She continues by noting that “the main thing to remember is that the president asked for the sun, the moon, and the stars, most of which he isn’t likely to receive from this newly minted, Republican-controlled Congress. So why did he even try? Well, the increase for education—and other domestic programs—was the administration’s first volley with the Republican Congress on an issue that’s likely to dominate budget talks all year long: whether or not to adhere to the spending levels set by sequestration.” A deal that had protected military programs and domestic programs like education from sequestration will expire in the fall, when a broad 8 percent cut will affect all programs.
Camera quotes Representative Tom Cole (OK-R), chair of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, which began last week to discuss President Obama’s budget request for the U.S. Department of Education: “The grim reality is that sequester is indeed the law of the land. It’s not a policy or a choice; it’s the law. I’m not convinced we can get out of it by the time we mark up these bills. However, I continue to hope for a budget deal… so that hopefully we can have a more realistic allocation when the time comes.”
I hope the education and civil rights organizations that released the important statement this week on the need for adequate funding in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization will engage actively with Congress as members debate the federal education budget. Last October the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reminded us that “since 2010, federal spending for Title I—the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools—is down 10 percent after adjusting for inflation, and federal spending on disabled education is down 8 percent.” It is time for Congress to recognize the need for essential funds for these programs that are central to the mission of public schools.