Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently known as No Child Left Behind) has been an on again, off again proposition in Congress. The 2002 law expired in 2007 and Congress has extended it a number of times while lawmakers debate some sort of longer term policy. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has given states the opportunity to waive some of the provisions of the law. In the latest development, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) announced that House Republicans would be moving forward with several pieces of legislation to address different aspects of ESEA. Earlier this week, that committee released two of these bills, the Student Success Act, which would replace the current Title I of ESEA, and the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act, which would replace Title II of the existing law.
By many accounts, both bills contain few surprises. They generally lessen the federal role in state and local K-12 education, particularly as it pertains to accountability and standards, putting more authority in states’ hands. But as we read the bills, particularly the Title I language, we noticed a few things missing that we thought for sure would be in any proposal. The top three surprising omissions are explained below:
- Maintenance of Effort Provision of Title I: Current law states that a local school district can only receive Title I Part A funds in an upcoming year if state and local governments provided the district with at least 90 percent of the funding (per pupil or overall) that they provided in the preceding year. In other words, if a district received $8,000 per pupil in 2010 in state and local funds, it has to have received at least $7,200 per pupil (90 percent of $8,000) in 2011 to receive Title I funds in 2012. This rule ensures that states and localities don’t dramatically reduce funding for their school districts year to year.
The recently introduced House bill strikes this provision entirely. It effectively gives states and localities license to dramatically cut contributions to K-12 education without jeopardizing their federal funds. While the provision was struck no doubt to give states and districts more flexibility in crafting their own budgets, the change is problematic. If the federal government doesn’t require states and localities hold up their end of education funding, it’s far less likely that they will use Title I funds to provide additional services for low income students – the core purpose of the federal funds.
- Updates to Teacher Comparability: Current law includes a provision that requires districts to demonstrate that they are comparably funding their low- and high-income schools. But the provision contains several flaws that undermine its goal, including a “loophole” that allows districts to exclude from the comparability calculation variations in teacher salaries that are due to years of experience. Ultimately this means that the current comparability provision has few teeth: much of the variation in spending between schools in a district is due to teacher compensation, and variation due to years of experience, at that. The current law labels spending between schools “comparable” even when schools with children from wealthier families receive much higher funding, so long as it comes in the form of salaries for more experienced teachers.
The House bill makes no changes to the existing provision, effectively allowing districts to turn the intent of the comparability rule on its head and short-change low-income schools. In contrast, the Senate’s Harkin/Enzi bill includes a strengthened comparability provision that eliminates the loophole and limits comparability calculations to actual expenditures rather than student-teacher ratios.
- High School Graduation Rates in Accountability: Current law includes an extensive accountability provision that holds states, districts, and schools accountable for student performance in math and reading and high school graduation rates. Though the House-proposed bill requires states to implement an accountability program that pertains to math and reading test outcomes, it strikes the high school graduation rate provision. Though the bill allows states to include other student outcome measures besides math and reading test performance, high school graduation rates seem like a glaring omission, especially given the recent focus on high school completion among policymakers and other stakeholders. By comparison, the Harkin/Enzi reauthorization bill in the Senate includes high school graduation rates as a required part of a state accountability plan.
Although the House has released its bill on the core functions of ESEA – accountability and the distribution of Title I funds – it is unlikely that the reauthorization process will proceed full-speed ahead. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) has said that he will not move a bill forward until the House presents a bi-partisan bill and many stakeholders believe that reauthorization will not occur until 2014 when the final NCLB proficiency deadline approaches (the point at which 100 percent of students are supposed to be proficient or above on math and reading tests). But at least now we know what the House has in mind for a future federal role in K-12 education: far fewer fiscal and accountability requirements for state and local school districts masquerading as flexibility and local control.