ESEA/NCLB reform moves forward, but little hope of passage this year

January ushered in the second session of the 112th Congress and with it action related to federal education policy. In late January, the president gave his annual State of the Union Address in which education remained a top priority. February saw the announcement of 11 states receiving flexibility waivers to implement the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the introduction and committee consideration of two Republican pieces of legislation aimed at reforming the ESEA, and the president’s 2013 budget proposal to Congress.

U.S. Department of Education (USDE) issues waivers in exchange for reforms

With little hope of comprehensive education legislation this year to reauthorize the ESEA (also known as the No Child Left Behind – NCLB – Act), the White House has been granting waivers from the federal legislation’s 2014 goals for student academic achievement to states that develop their own detailed reform plans.

Last November, 11 states (Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Tennessee, Colorado, Oklahoma and Minnesota) submitted applications to the USDE seeking greater flexibility (waivers) to implement ESEA in exchange for committing to college- and career-ready reforms laid out by the administration in September 2011. In February, all 11 states received approval to pursue school reforms without being tied to the requirements of NCLB.

More than two dozen states and the District of Columbia requested waivers by the second-round Feb. 28 deadline, and a third-round waiver deadline has been set for Sept. 6, 2012.

So far, Texas has not joined the almost 40 states that have asked for a waiver, and the commissioner of education has signaled reluctance to do so, citing concern about signing over traditionally state-controlled areas like curriculum and teacher evaluations to the federal government. Gov. Rick Perry’s recent sit-down with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan included discussion of the waivers, and was followed by statements that while the governor hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a waiver, he would do what was best for the state and determine what, if any, strings are attached before making any decision.

ESEA/NCLB reauthorization update

Whether proof that the waiver program had its intended effect of spurring Congressional activity or not, Congress has recently taken the first steps to reform the ESEA/NCLB, which has been due for reauthorization since 2007. Of particular note is that both House and Senate bills eliminate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and continue to require students to be tested in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, but eliminate the requirement to test students in science.  

In February, the House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) introduced the Student Success Act and the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act, legislation aimed at reforming the ESEA/NCLB.

Among other actions, the Student Success Act and the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act would replace Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) with state-developed accountability systems and current federal teacher mandates in favor of local teacher evaluation systems. The legislation would also grant state and local leaders enhanced flexibility in the use of federal funds. Following a legislative hearing on the bills and committee consideration of the measures, the Republican legislation was approved by the committee on a partisan vote of 23 to 16. 

During committee consideration, Democrats introduced two amendments that would essentially replace the accountability bill with their own version authored by Rep. George Miller (D-CA). One amendment, requiring states to set their own achievement targets and expanding accountability for English Language Learners and students in special education, was defeated on a party-line vote. A second amendment included language requiring districts and states to craft teacher evaluation systems, and provided funding for programs such as prekindergarten, American History and the arts. That also went down on a party-line vote.

The Senate Education Committee approved its own bill to reauthorize the ESEA/NCLB last October, but Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) has said he will not move that legislation to the Senate floor until the U.S. House of Representatives passes a bipartisan reauthorization bill.

President’s 2013 proposed budget cuts don’t extend to education spending

On Feb. 13, 2012, President Obama provided Congress the administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget request. Although the budget calls for a $3 trillion aggregate reduction in the deficit over the next 10 years, the proposed cuts do not extend to education spending. The president is seeking $69.8 billion, or a $1.7 increase, in funding for the USDE.

In addition to funding the administration’s priority programs including Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation (i3) and Promise Neighborhoods, the administration is focused on three new priorities: (1) improving affordability and quality in postsecondary education, (2) elevating the teaching profession, and (3) strengthening the connections between school and work and better aligning job training programs with workforce demands. 

The requests to support teachers and school leaders include a $5 billion one-time grant to reform the teaching profession; $190 million for a new Presidential Fellows Program; $2.9 billion for Effective Teachers and Leaders State grants; and $400 million for a Teacher and Leader Innovation Fund.

No Congressional hearings on the President’s education budget proposal have been scheduled at this time.

Social Security offsets 

The Social Security Fairness Act was introduced by California Republican Rep. Howard McKeon in the House of Representatives in April 2011. The bill seeks to eliminate both the government pension offset (GPO) and windfall elimination provision (WEP) programs which together reduce Social Security benefits and spousal benefits for former government employees who receive government pensions. The bill still has yet to see any legislative activity in Congress, although 154 members are currently cosponsors in support of the bill.

This article was prepared by Van Scoyoc Associates, TCTA’s lobby team in Washington, D.C., with extensive experience with education-related committees at the Capitol and in executive branch agencies.