House Vote on ESEA (NCLB) Reauthorization Likely by Friday

It looks as though by this coming Friday, February 27, 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives is likely to vote on its (extremely partisan) version of a reauthorization of the federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose most recent 2002 version we call No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  At least that is the prediction of Lauren Camera, the reporter who is covering the Congressional debate about the pending reauthorization for Education Week.  Camera explains: “A new schedule laid out (last) Thursday afternoon would send the Republican-backed bill, which the education committee passed on a party-line vote February 11, to the floor for debate Wednesday and Thursday, with a final vote scheduled for Friday morning.”  The House version of the reauthorization is being called the Student Success Act.

There are some pretty damaging things in this bill, but there is no cause for panic, yet anyway.  Partisan divides on many of the issues covered by the huge NCLB have prevented any kind of consensus in Congress for years now.  The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is supposed to be reauthorized and updated every five years, and Congress has dabbled with attempts to agree on a plan several times since the reauthorization was due in 2007.  There has, however, been no agreement.

Any bill that is passed by the House would have to be reconciled in a conference committee with whatever might come out of the Senate, and while the Senate is now also dominated by Republicans, there will still likely some significant differences between House and Senate versions.  Then, of course, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, could veto the bill if it is so extreme that it violates his core principles.  If Congress were to turn the already dangerous provision of Title I portability into a private school voucher plan, for example, it is likely the President would veto the reauthorization.

So what is in the bill the House will be voting on this Friday?

Accountability and Annual Standardized Testing:  Lindsey Layton of the Washington Post explains: “Under the bill, schools would have to measure student academic progress and report it by subgroup—race, family income, whether students are English-language learners or have disabilities—and issue annual report cards.”  BUT “States would not be required to meet any particular benchmarks for academic achievement.  They would have to intervene in high-poverty schools that are not improving by their measures but the type of intervention and the number of schools would be up to the states, which would not be required to evaluate teachers.”  House Republicans are trying to weaken the federal arm carrying heavy sanctions and punishments, but the House will likely leave the annual testing in place.

Title I Portability:   This provision undermines the original purpose of the federal role in education: to add compensatory funding in schools and school districts where family poverty is highly concentrated but where no state is doing enough to equalize opportunity.  Under the House bill due for a vote this week, poor children would receive federal Title I funds to support their education, but they could carry that funding to any public school they might attend.  If a family moved, for example, from a poor urban school district to a wealthy suburban district, the student would bring along a flat, per-child, Title I amount.  The problem with Title I portability is that in districts where poverty is concentrated, the poverty of the mass of children challenges the capacity of schools to provide adequate supports and services.  Title I portability would undermine targeting built into the Title I formula that weights support according to the concentration of poverty.  Here is how Washington Post reporter Lindsey Layton describes the effect: “For example, Phoenix public schools have a poverty rate of 61.4 percent.  The school system receives $8.5 million in federal Title I funds.  Under the House committee plan, the school district would receive $3.8 million less, a nearly 45 percent drop in federal funds, according to the U.S. Department of Education.”

Many people are predicting a proposed amendment on the House floor that would permit poor children to carry portable Title I funding not only to other public schools but also to private schools—a Title I private school voucher program.  If such a proposal were to be included in a final Congressional version of a reauthorization, many speculate that President Obama would veto the bill.  No one is sure whether or not the President would veto a Congressional bill that included only public school Title I portability.

Funding:  The issues become clearer if one contrasts the provisions in the House version of the reauthorization with the proposals in President Obama’s FY2016 federal budget, released early in February.  Lauren Camera has explained in Education Week that the President’s proposed FY 2016 budget includes a significant increase for programs in the Department of Education: “Under the request, the Education Department would be funded to the tune of $70.7 billion, a 5.4 percent, $3.6 billion hike over current appropriation levels… This year’s request… seeks major increases for some… formula grants.  Title I would see a $1 billion hike to $15.4 billion; IDEA would get a modest increase of $175 million, bringing the program to $11.7 billion; and English-Language Acquisition grants, which haven’t seen an increase in years would receive a $135 million boost to nearly $775 million.” “Financial-aid programs, including Pell Grants, which help low-income students afford college, make up the single largest funding category in President Barack Obama’s $70.7 billion discretionary budget….”

By contrast, the NCLB reauthorization bill coming to the House floor on Friday from the Education and Workforce Committee includes funding limitations.  The bill would freeze the portion of the federal education budget that pays for the programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act at a dangerously low level, and far below the President’s proposed FY 16 budget.  The national advocacy organization, the Committee on Education Funding,  warns: “HR 5 (House Resolution 5 is the bill’s number.)… would freeze funding in the aggregate for programs authorized in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act through the 2021-2022 school year. HR 5 freezes the aggregate ESEA authorization level for Fiscal Year 2016 and for each of the succeeding five years (that would be covered by a 2015, five-year reauthorization of NCLB) at the aggregate FY 2016 appropriated level of $23.30 billion.  Not only will this prevent needed investments for critical programs for the next six years, but it cuts funding below the FY 2012 pre-sequester level of $24.11 billion (a cut of 3.36 percent).”

The dangerous funding freeze for programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that the House will be considering this week can also be seen as a warning about the likely reception, when Congress considers the President’s proposed FY 2016 budget, of proposed increases for the broad range of programs of the U.S. Department of Education in FY 2016.