On a party-line vote, Democrats on the Senate committee reported out a bill that expands the role of the federal government in education and makes the Secretary of Education the national superintendent of schools. The National School Boards Association describes the legislation here, which NSBA opposes.

Summary of Senate HELP Mark-up of the Strengthening America’s Schools Act, S. 1094

The Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee approved a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) on Wednesday, June 12, 2013. The Strengthening America’s Schools Act, S. 1094 was passed after two days of sometimes heated deliberation on a 12 Democrat – 10 Republican party line vote. Whether and when the bill will be considered by the full Senate is uncertain, but Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) expressed his intention to get it to the floor by the end of the year.

The issues voiced by NSBA in its letter to the Committee were raised frequently during the two days of discussion and voting. In fact, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) read from and held up NSBA’s letter during his opening statement as evidence of the strong objections to federal overreach and the overwhelming increase in reporting requirements in S. 1094 as introduced.

Without doubt the fulcrum of debate at the mark-up was the proper role of the federal government in education. Unfortunately, the partisan gap continues on what that role should be. Chairman Harkin characterized the bill as “a new partnership of shared responsibility,” and passed an amendment clarifying that states and districts could refuse Title I, Part A funds, and thereby be free of federal requirements. Meanwhile, Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN) repeatedly asserted that S. 1094 creates “a national school board.”

The partisan gap prevailed in the Committee’s efforts to address all major issues. Of the 23 amendments offered, all but one Republican amendment was rejected, whereas all but 1 of the Democratic amendments were accepted to the base bill. This was despite recognition – acknowledged by Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) himself – that the Department of Education has exceeded its authority on ESEA waivers, and Congress has exacerbated the problem by failing to reauthorize ESEA. For example:

Role of the Secretary: The role of the Secretary of Education appears to have increased substantially in S. 1094. Throughout the bill, the Secretary is authorized to determine the overall quality and effectiveness of greatly expanded state plan requirements that will, in turn, impact the local level. The Secretary would appear to be involved in the design of programs, directing the specifics, for example, in addressing parent/community engagement and extensive data collection. In the case of data, the bill calls for multiple cross tabulations of a wide range of academic and non-academic student data that we believe will be overwhelming for many school systems to produce. The same can be said of new local plan requirements. Amendments described by their sponsors as attempts to eliminate new or onerous reporting and federal oversight requirements were rejected by the Committee. In fact, amendments were approved to create additional reporting requirements on military children, interscholastic sports, and career and technical education.

Turnaround models: Local educational agencies, including those receiving NCLB waivers from the Secretary, continue to be concerned with the limited flexibility in designing and implementing turnaround models for low performing schools. Several amendments intended to increase flexibility on how States and LEAs identify and improve low-performing schools were not approved.

Comparability: NSBA supports the concept of comparability and believes it is important to ensure that Title I schools receive comparable educational support. The proposed comparability provision in S. 1094 would change the method for how LEAs determine whether comparable services are being provided from local resources to Title I schools compared to other schools in the district. It would require local educational agencies to show that they spend no less at each Title I school – as determined by the combined state and local per-pupil expenditures for personnel and non-personnel – than they do at the average non-Title I schools in the district. Local school officials have determined that the provision is burdensome and not geared to achieving the desired educational outcomes. Efforts to address comparability were rejected by the Committee, so the unworkable language in the base bill stands.

Public Charter Schools Expansion: Local educational agencies continue to be concerned with the increased congressional support for public charter schools in the legislation and the apparent willingness of Congress to not hold public charter schools to the same accountability requirements as traditional public schools. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) offered, but then withdrew an amendment to hold charter schools to the same accountability requirements as other public schools. Chairman Harkin pledged to work on an amendment for the floor, however.

Other amendments on ESEA flexibility waivers, vouchers, Race to the Top, college access, special education, and teacher and principal effectiveness sparked spirited discussion and even a little table-pounding before S. 1094 was reported out favorably by the Committee on a 12 – 10 party line vote.

NSBA is not able to support S. 1094 in its current form, and will continue to urge Congress to reauthorize an ESEA bill that supports local school district governance. In preparing for the full Senate floor vote, NSBA will prepare amendments and work with the engagement of the state associations to secure support from targeted Senators.

House Action – Committee Mark Up Tomorrow – June 19

The Committee on Education and the Workforce in the U.S. House of Representatives has released its version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Reauthorization, entitled The Student Success Act, H.R. 5 and it is scheduled for mark up this Wednesday, June 19, 2013. NSBA sent this letter Committee members.

Reminder: The Committee on Education and the Workforce determines the provisions in the law that best help local school boards to improve academic achievement for our students. Please contact your member of Congress if he/she sits on the Committee on Education and the Workforce in the U.S. House of Representatives through the Capitol Hill Switchboard (202-224-3121) as soon as possible.

Your Message to Your Member of Congress

As a local school board member, I urge you to:

1) Support the House Committee bill, The Student Success Act, H.R. 5 because the bill eliminates unnecessary and overwhelming administrative requirements and restores flexibility and governance to local school boards who are in the best position to address the needs of students in our local communities; but

2) Re-instate the maintenance of effort provisions for education to ensure that states provide at least the same level of funding for K-12 education from one year to the next.

Thank you for responding to our call to action. Please provide any feedback to kbranch@nsba.org.

Sincerely, Kathleen Branch & NSBA’s Advocacy Team

Kathleen Branch
Director, National Advocacy Services Programs
National School Boards Association
Alexandria, VA