Congress Debates NCLB Reauthorization; Lucid Policy Memo Clarifies Concerns

Congress is in the midst of considering a long overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose most recent 2002 version is called No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  In the Senate, Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat, recently announced they would put aside Alexander’s Republican version of a bill and start over to create a bipartisan draft.

Last week in the House, the Education and the Workforce Committee, chaired by John Kline (R, Minn) marked up and passed a bill that, Kline says, will be debated on the House floor at the end of February.  This House version, HR 5, is similar to a partisan re-write passed a couple of years ago that died when Congress could not agree on a reauthorization.  The House bill, dubbed the Student Success Act, includes Title I portability and thereby undermines the original purpose of the federal role in education by reducing targeting of federal funds to schools in communities where family poverty is highly concentrated.

The Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of 115 national education associations and institutions has released a statement highly critical of federal funding freezes embedded in HR 5: “While CEF as a coalition is not taking a position on the policy issues in HR 5, we oppose the authorization levels because they would freeze funding in the aggregate for programs authorized in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) through the 2021-22 school year.  HR 5 freezes the aggregate ESEA authorization level for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 and for each of the succeeding five years 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)… Since the National Center for Education Statistics projects that public school enrollment will increase by more than 2.2 million students in this period and the Congressional Budget Office projects an aggregate increase in the CPI of 14.2 percent between 2015 and 2021, such a freeze would severely erode the purchasing power of these programs and significantly reduce services to students… These cuts have come at a time when enrollments have increased, more children are living in poverty and schools and students have endured deep state and local budget cuts.”

In the context of the Congressional debate about the possible reauthorization of NCLB, Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado and Bill Mathis, the managing director of the center, have released a lucid and nuanced evaluation of NCLB: “Today’s 21-year-olds were in third grade in 2002, when the No Child Left Behind act became law… The federal government entrusted their educations to an unproven but ambitious belief that if we test children and hold educators responsible for improving test scores, we would have almost everyone scoring as ‘proficient’ by 2014.  Thus, we would achieve ‘equality.’ This approach has not worked.” “The broad consensus among researchers is that this system is at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive.  The issues now being debated in Washington largely ignore these facts about the failure of test-based educational reform, and the proposals now on the table simply gild, rather than transform, a strategy with little or no promise.”

The policy memo was posted on Friday by Valerie Strauss at the website of the Washington Post.  An annotated version is posted at the NEPC website. I urge you to read it carefully.  Welner and Mathis examine a a set of complicated policy issues elegantly, simply and logically.  It is the best short evaluation I’ve seen of NCLB’s impact along with a consideration of several key issues being discussed in the Congressional debate about reauthorizing the federal education law.

Welner and Mathis acknowledge the argument from Civil Rights groups that NCLB and the disaggregated reporting of standardized test scores have shined a bright light on achievement gaps, but they add: “The hope was that this greater attention would be followed by greater resources and greater opportunities… It is important to note that achievement gaps were well known prior to NCLB.  The disaggregation of NAEP test results has provided clear documentation of achievement gaps for many decades.  What NCLB and related policies added was a set of punitive interventions, not a guiding knowledge of the gaps and not a set of strategies and resources to close the gaps.”

“If we as a nation are to continue asking our schools to somehow counteract the effects of poverty and other societal ills, we will need to provide children in resource-starved communities with extraordinarily enriching opportunities within those schools.  Looking to the adequacy studies across the nation, each economically deprived child should receive between 40 and 100 percent greater funding than the average student, while they actually receive about 19 percent greater funding.  In fact, by one measure, urban districts serving our most needy children have only 89 percent of the national average in revenues.  The original language of ESEA’s Title I program provided that each child living in poverty would receive an additional 40 percent of the state’s average spending.  Neither the federal government nor the states have ever appropriated sums of this magnitude.  The current discussion in Congress similarly ignores this promise and this need.  In fact, one proposal is to make Title I funds ‘portable,’ which would have the effect of moving even more funds away from schools with the greatest needs.”

What will happen in the future if Congress persists in reauthorizing the federal education law along the lines of the 2002 NCLB?  “The above-described pattern of ever-increasing social needs and educational needs, as well as fewer or stagnant resources, will inevitably lead to larger—not smaller—opportunity gaps and achievement gaps.  Testing will document this, but it will do nothing to change it.  Instead, the gaps will only close with sustained investment and improvement based on proven strategies that directly increase children’s opportunities to learn.”

Everyone Should Learn About, Care About, and Strongly Oppose Title I Portability

The conversation in Congress about a possible reauthorization of the federal education law—called No Child Left Behind in 2002 when the most recent version was signed into law—-may seem really “in the weeds,” too wonky really to take in.  And it’s an even more baffling conversation because the politics seem all confused with the Democratic administration of Barack Obama supporting the annual high stakes testing that was brought to us originally by a Republican, George W. Bush.

But there is one aspect of this discussion that is urgently important as a matter of justice, and it is playing out along party lines.  The subject is Title I Portablity — something that Republicans have introduced into their proposed bills in both the Senate and House.

Here is some history: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was first passed as part of the War on Poverty in 1965.  Title I, the centerpiece of that law, was designed to provide what was called “compensatory” funding to schools and school districts that serve either a large number or large concentration of children in poverty.  It was designed to try to protect the rights of very poor children in states that were not spending nearly enough on the education of children living in poverty.  Proposals for something called  Title I Portability in both Republican proposals being discussed right now in the Senate and the House of Representatives would destroy how the Title I formula works to protect the rights and meet the needs of our nation’s poorest children.

In both Senate and House proposed bills, a flat amount of money would be allocated for each poor child, and the child would carry that funding to whatever public school the child attends.  There would no longer be a formula that weights the federal Title I amount—with additional money following children who attend school in districts with concentrated poverty.

Here is how the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), an organization of 50 education, civic, civil rights and religious organizations, explains the purpose of the Title I formula and the threat posed by Title I Portability: “Congress adopted Title I in 1965 to ensure that districts and schools serving large concentrations of students in poverty received a greater portion of federal funds to address the compounded impact of poverty on student learning.  High-poverty school districts and schools benefit from increased federal investment by taking advantage of ‘economies of scale’ to combine resources for school-wide services and whole school reforms targeted at economically and academically needy groups of students.”

Members of NCPE oppose Republican proposals to “provide states the option of making Title I funding ‘portable’ by allowing  the money to follow the child to a public school. This proposal would undermine Title I’s fundamental purpose of assisting public schools with high concentrations of poverty and high-need students.” “Under current law, districts make local decisions about how to best use their Title I funding.  This allows them to ‘pool’ Title I funds so that the highest poverty schools in the district receive the funds. For decades, districts have also chosen to invest their Title I funds primarily in their highest poverty elementary schools because addressing student learning needs at the earliest age possible produces the greatest return on investment.  Districts, working with principals and school leaders, can also further target their federal dollars toward specific students within a school based on their economic needs.  Portablity would divest local school districts, principals, and other school leaders of this important decision making authority….”

The Center on American Progress (CAP) has also published a brief opposing Title I Portability. According to CAP, letting the money follow the poor child—the definition of Title I Portability—“ignores the long-known fact that socioeconomic isolation has a devastating impact on student learning and achievement outcomes. Simply put the challenges that low-income students face are significantly greater when the majority of their classmates are also low income.”  CAP estimates that, on average, school districts with highly concentrated family poverty would lose $85 per student while more affluent school districts would gain, on average, $290 per student. Funding would be less targeted, its impact diluted. Chicago would lose $64 million, CAP estimates, and the Los Angeles Unified School District $75 million.

CAP calls the idea of Title I Portability “Robin Hood in Reverse”—“taking from the poor and giving to the rest.”