ESEA to Boost Federal Role In Education

By Erik W. Robelen — January 09, 2002 14 min read
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Following an exhaustive effort by Congress that spanned nearly three years and ultimately generated broad bipartisan support, President Bush was expected to sign the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law this week.

The legislation sets in place requirements that will reach into virtually every public school in the nation. It calls for statewide reading and mathematics tests each year in grades 3-8, a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom, and demonstrable progress by states and districts toward academic proficiency for all their students within 12 years.

It also exerts new pressure to turn around low-performing schools, with a series of consequences for schools that persistently fail to improve.

Called the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, the mega-measure is accompanied by the largest dollar increase ever in federal education aid. The Department of Education’s overall budget will rise by $6.7 billion in fiscal 2002, to nearly $49 billion. The education appropriation for the budget year that began Oct. 1 won approval from Congress late last month, shortly after both chambers passed the final version of the ESEA.

Congress in the ESEA legislation and the accompanying budget seeks to better target resources to high-poverty school districts. And the ESEA now provides new flexibility—especially for districts—in how they spend a portion of their federal dollars.

The final package reflects a political compromise by a range of interests, but embraces many of the president’s original proposals unveiled just days after Mr. Bush took office a year ago this month. The bill received nearly 90 percent support in Congress, with big majorities from both parties.

Last reauthorized in 1994 under President Clinton, the ESEA is the major federal law in precollegiate education. It was first enacted in 1965 at the urging of President Lyndon B. Johnson, and it includes the flagship federal K-12 program, Title I.

“This, I think, is legislation that has been bipartisan in the best sense of the word,” Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said of the “No Child Left Behind” measure. The bill passed his chamber by a 281-41 vote on Dec. 13. Less than a week later, the Senate approved it, 87-10.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige hailed what he called “an educational consensus between President Bush and congressional leaders in both parties.” He argued that the legislation would change the nature of the federal role from funding to investing.

“When federal spending is an investment, it gives the federal government leverage to demand results,” the secretary said. “And demanding results is what the Department of Education will do.”

Local Concerns

But while most politicians in Washington have praised their handiwork, the plan has received a far more mixed reception from education leaders around the country.

“I have the same concern you’re probably going to hear from a lot of educators: this mad rush for testing,” said Lewis W. Finch, the superintendent of the 18,000-student Cedar Rapids school district in Iowa. “It’s such a narrow band of information that they’re going to use to make crucial judgments.”

Mr. Finch also suggested that the new requirements might be disproportionate to the level of federal aid. “If it’s only about 7 percent,” he said in reference to the estimated federal share of district expenditures nationally, “don’t you think they’re reaching a little bit?”

Julio Z. Almanza, who heads the 13,000-student Duluth public schools in Minnesota, closely tracked Congress’ progress on the education bill, to the point of knowing offhand the vote tally in the House. He said he was disappointed that lawmakers ultimately rejected a plan—backed by most Democrats and a minority of Republicans—that would have locked in mandatory spending increases for special education for years to come.

That issue was one of the thorniest education matters that Congress debated this past year.

“Probably the best thing that the federal government could do right now is fund the additional $5 million in special education costs that my district has to pay” each year as a result of federal mandates, the Duluth superintendent said. Mr. Almanza also said he was worried that the new testing would cost far more than Congress has set aside in aid for that purpose.

“If you fully fund the mandates, I can deal with the other aspects of it,” he said.

While most education leaders interviewed expressed at least some concerns about the new law, some were far more upbeat in their overall assessment.

“I’m 100 percent supportive of what this stands for, even if I will struggle with the implementation strategies or whether they put enough money behind it,” said Peter McWalters, Rhode Island’s commissioner of education.

Key Concessions

While the final legislation reflects many of President Bush’s priorities, it also contains some notable changes from the 28-page blueprint he unveiled a year ago.

For example, his plan to give private school vouchers to students in persistently failing public schools was stripped out early in the process in the face of implacable Democratic opposition. His proposal allowing some states to convert most ESEA funding into a block grant in exchange for negotiating a performance agreement with the Education Department was also effectively squelched by Democrats. And many Republicans joined Democrats in scrapping Mr. Bush’s proposed system of financial rewards and penalties for states based on their progress in improving student achievement.

Meanwhile, overall spending for the department—$48.9 billion—climbed $4.4 billion above Mr. Bush’s original request.

Democrats made concessions as well. Though total funding is more than the president had sought, Democrats had been pressing for an even greater increase. The final bill includes a level of program consolidation and flexibility for districts in spending federal aid that some Democrats found distasteful.

They also effectively lost at least one highly prized program: about $1 billion for school repair.

And while Mr. Bush lost on vouchers, Democrats reluctantly agreed to another of the president’s ideas for increasing families’ educational options: letting parents direct a portion of a failing school’s Title I aid to pay for private tutoring.

Many members of both parties had to swallow hard on the new testing and accountability provisions imposed by the federal government. Few states currently appear to meet the law’s testing requirements.

Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House education committee, spent considerable time working to persuade his conservative colleagues—including some who, like Mr. Boehner himself, had called in years past for eliminating the federal Education Department—that the bill was worth supporting. In the end, only 33 House Republicans voted no.

As his chamber prepared for final passage, however, Mr. Boehner cautioned that congressional action on the bill was just the first step.

“We must have the courage not just to vote for these reforms today, but to ensure that they are implemented,” he said. “The writing of the rules, the implementation of this bill in each of our 50 states is going to be a Herculean battle, not unlike what we have seen over the course of this year.”

Many states, in fact, still have not fully complied with core requirements of the 1994 version of the ESEA—especially those related to standards and testing—even though the final deadlines are now past. (“States Sluggish on Execution of 1994 ESEA,” Nov. 28, 2001.)

The new ESEA builds in many ways on the changes that Congress set in place in that last reauthorization.

Passed with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress as well as the White House, the 1994 law called for all states to establish high-quality academic standards, assessments aligned with those standards, and accountability systems to ensure progress toward meeting the standards.

But the testing required was less frequent than the annual tests now being mandated for 3rd through 8th graders. The 1994 law required statewide testing in at least reading and mathematics once during the elementary grades, once during the middle grades, and once in high school.

A Long Haul

The road to this reauthorization did not begin last January with Mr. Bush’s arrival in town. In the spring of 1999, President Clinton unveiled his own plan to revamp the ESEA. Lawmakers spent a good portion of 1999 and 2000 wrestling with the legislation, but with wide differences remaining between Mr. Clinton and the GOP-controlled House and Senate as the 2000 election campaign heated up, the effort was finally abandoned.

Mr. Bush made education a top priority during his campaign, embracing an active federal role in schools. That was an unusual position for a Republican presidential candidate. The 1996 party platform, for example, advocated the abolition of the Department of Education. Following through on his campaign proposals, President Bush unveiled an education package two days after he took office.

Rep. Boehner in December applauded the president for taking “the issue of education and our party in a new direction.”

Former Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, who led the Education Department throughout the Clinton administration, said in a recent interview that while he had some misgivings about President Bush’s original plan, he was pleased with the final result. If he were still secretary, Mr. Riley said, he would recommend that the measure be signed into law.

Mr. Riley argues that the final plan has a great deal in common with what Mr. Clinton wanted. “We submitted a bill that was consistent with this,” the former secretary said.

Boost for Urban Schools

One aspect of the new ESEA, and the accompanying spending bill for the 2002 fiscal year, that has generated particular enthusiasm in urban districts concerns how federal aid is distributed under the Title I program for disadvantaged students—by far the largest ESEA program.

In essence, the change will deliver an extra financial kick for school districts with high concentrations of poor children by altering the funding formula somewhat to tilt further toward those districts. (“Off Target?,” Sept. 5, 2001.)

“I think there are more positives than negatives in this bill,” said Thomas W. Payzant, the superintendent of the 63,000-student Boston public schools and a former assistant education secretary under President Clinton. He said the targeting provisions were one important reason for that.

“The targeting ... is a real signal that there’s not only seriousness of policy direction,” Mr. Payzant said. "[It reflects] the recognition that the federal government’s role is to deal with issues of equity and provide resources for those children that have the greatest need for support.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said just before the bill’s final Senate passage that major urban areas would see increases of at least 30 percent in Title I aid. Under the fiscal 2002 budget, Boston public schools will get an extra $11 million this year, Los Angeles an extra $87 million, and New York City an additional $143 million, according to preliminary estimates by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. High-poverty rural areas will also see significant gains, Sen. Kennedy said.

One key measure excluded from the final deal would have meant even more money for school districts across the country: a plan to shift spending for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act from the “discretionary” to the “mandatory” side of the federal budget. That proposal would have skirted the annual appropriations process in Congress and locked in years of spending increases for special education. The measure was included in the Senate version of the ESEA, but was removed in the face of staunch opposition from Republicans on the House side of the 39-member conference committee on the ESEA.

It was that decision that ultimately prompted Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, the Senate’s only Independent, to oppose the final ESEA legislation.

“I feel very strongly that what we have done, without the funding, is going to be counterproductive and very discouraging,” said Mr. Jeffords, who was the chairman of the Senate education committee until he announced plans last spring to quit the Republican Party. His decision to become an Independent, and support the Democrats in votes to organize the Senate’s governance, flipped the balance of power in the Senate to the Democrats.

But other members who backed the special education provision argued that, on balance, the bill was still worth supporting, even if funding levels for special education and other ESEA provisions would not be as high as they had hoped.

Mr. Kennedy pointed to provisions in the bill that would expand opportunities for educators’ professional development, provide money to help schools reduce class sizes, and expand and strengthen after-school programs. He also said the bill would provide new resources and support for failing schools.

“I regret that we are not going to be able to reach all of the children that could benefit from these kinds of programs,” he said. “We will see a significant increase in the resources.” But he vowed that Democrats would continue to push for more money.

“We’re going to have that battle next year, and the year after that. That’s the way this process works,” Mr. Kennedy said.

While special education funding will remain discretionary, at least for now, the budget for state grants under the IDEA grew by about $1.2 billion, to $7.53 billion, under the final spending plan for fiscal 2002. ESEA programs also saw some sizable growth in funding, especially Title I, which was increased by $1.6 billion, to $10.35 billion.

Private Tutoring

Some Republicans, meanwhile, are especially pleased about provisions in the ESEA overhaul that will allow parents new options when a poorly-performing school fails to make sufficient progress over time. After two consecutive years of not making adequate progress, a school would have to provide public school choice. After three years, parents could direct a portion of the school’s Title I aid to pay for private tutoring.

Republicans said the tutoring would kick in as soon as next fall in at least 3,000 schools already identified as failing.

“That is a big incentive,” said Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the ranking Republican on the Senate education committee. “First, it is a big plus with a parent, whose child has maybe fallen behind in math or fallen behind in English, to take their child and get tutorial support. It is an equally big incentive for the school systems to get their house in order.”

Asked about the tutoring provision, several state and district leaders suggested it could be complicated to deal with.

Milwaukee Superintendent Spencer Korté said that, philosophically, he backs the idea that parents should have the right to make such choices. The 104,000-student Milwaukee system itself has a state-enacted school voucher program for children from low-income families. But Mr. Korté said he wondered about how the provisions on supplemental services would actually work.

“From a practical point of view, it’s going to be fairly tricky to administer that,” he said. “I think there are a lot of questions ... that have to get answered.”

Flexibility was another concept especially dear to the hearts of Republicans during the ESEA debate. In its final form, the legislation provides some extra flexibility, particularly for school districts in how they spend federal aid, though not as much as many GOP members had hoped.

The new flexibility was welcome news to some school leaders.

“The flexibility will be useful for us,” said Mr. Korté, the Milwaukee superintendent. “The money comes in silos, and it would be very helpful if the silos got widened, or you could mix and match to get the best effect for our schools.”

That’s exactly what authors of the new legislation envision. But the related goal of some lawmakers and President Bush to consolidate the array of ESEA programs into a smaller set of programs didn’t work out exactly as planned.

Some leading Republicans have emphasized that the final legislation reduced the overall number of individual ESEA programs from 55 to 45.

A closer look at the final appropriations bill, however, reveals that some of the programs that apparently had been consolidated in the ESEA legislation re-emerged in the budget as separate items. To name a few such provisions, the budget sets aside: $50 million for physical education programs, $25 million for grants to reduce alcohol abuse among young people, $32.5 million for elementary school counseling, and $142 million to encourage creation of smaller schools.

Understandably, members of Congress and officials of the Bush administration have been making a big deal out of final passage of the education bill. After all, it has been a long time in coming. And it’s one of few domestic-policy accomplishments that both Republicans and Democrats can point to in Washington this year.

Leaders in both parties, as well as some commentators, have called the bill “the most sweeping reform” of federal education policy since the first enactment of the K-12 education law 36 years earlier.

But while suggesting the new ESEA may well be significant, some old political hands caution about letting the rhetoric get carried away.

Former Secretary Riley recalled that in 1994, when Congress passed both the Goals 2000 legislation and the last reauthorization of the ESEA, the action was deemed a momentous change.

“We called ours sweeping,” Mr. Riley said. “Whoever passes the next reauthorization will call it sweeping.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2002 edition of Education Week as ESEA to Boost Federal Role In Education


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