ESEA, the U.S. Senate and the Fight for Public Schools

On July 16, the U.S. Senate passed the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, a bill to reauthorize the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), by a vote of 81 to 17.

To help grassroots education organizers and advocates across the country understand what's at stake in the ESEA rewrite, we've put together the below analysis of the portions of the comprehensive Senate bill (S.1177) that relate specifically to the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools' key issue areas of sustainable community schools, charter school accountability, school discipline reform and high-stakes testing.

The U.S. House of Representatives also recently passed its own version of an ESEA reauthorization, H.R.5. Unlike the Senate's bipartisan effort, the House bill was distinctly partisan, with all Democrats in the chamber voting against it.

Over the next two months, the two bills will be reconciled in a conference committee, in hopes that agreement can be reached on a final package that will be voted on in both the House and the Senate and signed by the President.

Much of this update is based on materials developed and shared by our partners at the NEA and AFT. We are grateful for their work on the bill and their willingness to share detailed information with us as the bill was moving through the Senate!

Overall Provisions of the Bill

The Every Child Achieves Act (S.1177) was a bipartisan effort from the beginning, emerging in the Senate HELP Committee via the offices of Committee hair Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray. The bill passed in the Senate by a vote of 81-17.

The ECAA continues the ESEA’s original intent of mitigating poverty and addressing educational equity. However, it does not call for increased funding levels overall. In an open letter in March, AROS demanded that ESEA be funded at the levels originally intended by Congress – amounting to providing an additional 40 percent more for low-income students over state per-pupil averages. 

It could have been worse, though. Some Senators called for “portability” of Title I funds (designated to support low-income students and schools), which would have allowed the funds to be disbursed more broadly to schools, diluting the focus on low-income students. But those provisions were not included in the final bill.

AROS has not engaged in the debate over academic standards of the Common Core. But it’s important to know that the ECAA allows states to decide what academic standards they will adopt and prohibits the federal government from mandating or incentivizing any particular set of standards.

High-Stakes Testing

The ECAA keeps the current federal requirement for annual testing in reading and math for students in grades 3-8 and once in high school, as well as science tests given three times between grades 3-12.  Results of these assessments must continue to be disaggregated by demographic group. The bill, however, would give states the responsibility to determine how to use these tests for accountability purposes. In other words, states, instead of the federal government, would determine the weight of the tests in their overall accountability system, and would set goals and targets for student improvement.

This change in the ECAA is very significant. It eliminates the School Improvement Grants program, through which the U.S. Department of Education incentivized school closings, test-based teacher evaluations and charter expansion as conditions for receiving much-needed federal funds. The new law would offer grants to states and school districts to help improve low-performing schools, but allows states to identify those schools and design evidence-based interventions. The Department of Education is prohibited from mandating, prescribing or defining specific steps that school districts and states must take to intervene.

Additional language in the bill requires states to establish a limit on the aggregate amount of time spent on assessments. It also explicitly allows parents, students and schools to opt-out of tests and prohibits sanctions against them if they choose to opt-out. 

The targeting and intervention requirements were stripped from the bill despite the strong efforts of a number of mainstream civil rights organizations which argued that targeted and forceful interventions like school closings were necessary to protect students of color. In response, the Journey for Justice Alliance (an AROS partner) sent a letter to Senate leadership in early July, calling on Congress to end the destructive interventions (school closings and charterization) that have been destabilizing our communities for years. Over 175 organizations signed on to the Journey for Justice letter, including several state chapters of the NAACP. The letter was also widely circulated in the media and helped bolster the argument that these oppressive sanctions should not be included in the bill.

Sustainable Community Schools

The bill supports community schools in a number of important ways! Through an amendment offered by Senators Brown, Capito and Manchin, the bill now explicitly allows Title IV funds to be used to hire site resource coordinators  – which essentially opens all of Title IV funding up to be used for community schools.

Just as important, Title V of the bill now includes a new section called the “Full Service Community Schools Act,” which specifically creates a funding stream for community schools. The Act defines a community school as one that “participates in a community-based effort to coordinate and integrate educational, developmental, family, health and other comprehensive services through community-based organizations and public and private partnerships” and makes these services available to students, families and the community. The new language establishes a grants program to support the development and coordination of these schools. This amendment was offered by Senators Brown and Manchin, who worked aggressively to have it included in the final bill.

The bill does not yet identify funding levels for this program (AROS has demanded as much as $1 billion for 5,000 sustainable community schools). Funding will be worked out during the appropriations process.

Federal Charter Schools Program / Charter Accountability

AROS has been particularly critical of the federal Charter Schools Program, which is part of ESEA and provides start-up grants and funding for charter schools. In 2010 and 2012, the Department of Education’s own Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conducted audits of the program and found significant problems with monitoring and oversight.  AROS, the Center for Popular Democracy, and the Center for Media and Democracy have demanded that the Department of Education better account for the use of funds under this program. AROS also pushed a demand for a moratorium on the program.

Senator Brown has introduced a stand-alone bill (not part of the ECAA at this time) that would go a long way towards cleaning up this program. But when it became clear that his full language would not be inserted into the Senate's bill, he negotiated several important provisions which were adopted and included in the ECAA. Brown’s language clarifies that states that receive grants through the charter program must better track how those grants are spent, both by individual charter schools and by charter management organizations. It also requires states to describe how they will deal with charter school closures to minimize disruption to students and to submit a plan for considering the input of parents and community members when opening new charter schools. Importantly, the new provisions require the Department of Education to submit a report to the Senate HELP committee within 6 months of the enactment of the law responding to the 2010 and 2012 OIG audits and describing what actions the Department has taken in response. 

It will be critical for advocates and organizers to continue pressing for these and more provisions to be added during conference negotiations.

Discipline / School-to-Prison Pipeline / Restorative Justice

The ECAA does not take significant steps towards ending the school-to-prison pipeline and it does not create any grant programs or target funding directly towards the establishment of restorative justice programs at the state or local level.

The bill does require states to protect students from physical or mental abuse or any physical restraint or seclusion imposed for disciplinary purposes. It also requires states to identify strategies for addressing school discipline issues in schools with high levels or disproportionate rates of suspensions or expulsions.

An additional amendment offered by Senator Cory Booker was adopted that would ensure that states support early childhood programs that do not utilize suspensions and expulsions as part of their discipline policy.

AROS has previously demanded $500 million for states to end the school-to-prison pipeline and provide supports and training for schools to implement restorative justice programs. These program initiatives or funding demands were not met.

Next Steps

On July 8, the U.S. House of Representatives also passed their version of the ESEA reauthorization, the Student Success Act (H.R. 5). Controversial provisions in the House bill include “portability” of federal Title I funds to “follow the child” to whatever school they attend and the elimination of various programs to satisfy the demand of some Representatives to dramatically downsize the federal role in education.

The next step will be a conference committee, which will be tasked with reconciling the House and Senate bills and offering up a version that both the House and Senate would then vote on. The conferees might be named before the August recess, and the committee would convene just after the recess.