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House Panel Questions Duncan on ESEA and Budget

By Alyson Klein — March 03, 2010 5 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan got a warm reception last week—but also plenty of pointed questions—from both Democrats and Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee, which is kicking off the reauthorization process for the Elementary and Secondary Act.

Members of the panel asked about a broad range of issues, including assessments for students in special education, and the administration’s push for extended learning time. The panel recently announced a bipartisan effort to renew the main federal K-12 law, whose current version is the No Child Left Behind Act.

Although the tone of the March 3 hearing was congenial, it is clear that some committee members have qualms about aspects of the administration’s fiscal 2011 budget proposal, released earlier this year and reflective of many of the administration’s priorities for the reauthorization of the ESEA.

For instance, Rep. John Kline, of Minnesota, the top Republican on the committee, said he and Mr. Duncan agree on a number of issues, including the need to support high-performing charter schools and reward effective teachers. But he reiterated concerns about the administration’s proposal to tie Title I money to college- and career-ready standards.

“The idea that academic standards would have to be federally approved—either through participation in a government-sanctioned set of common standards or direct consent by an unnamed federal entity—looks to many of us like national standards,” he said. “Putting the federal government in charge of what is taught and tested in the classroom would be a radical departure from this country’s approach to education, so Mr. Secretary, that’s an issue we’ll need to discuss.”

But Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the committee, gave Secretary Duncan high marks for his implementation of the Race to the Top program, created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which passed last year. The $4 billion in competitive grants will reward states for making progress on state data systems, standards and assessments, the turnaround of low-performing schools, and teacher effectiveness.

Rep. Miller said a number of states—including his home state of California—have reworked their laws to better position themselves for the program, by lifting caps on charter schools or striking language that prohibits linking of student achievement data to teacher effectiveness.

“I think it’s a pretty darn good beginning,” Mr. Miller said of the program.

Meanwhile, Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., said he’s “very, very skeptical” of the administration’s proposal to revamp the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which has traditionally financed after-school and summer programs.

The department’s proposal, unveiled in its fiscal 2011 budget request, seeks to refocus the program on extended learning time, as well as on bolstering efforts to create “full-service community schools,” which provide comprehensive services, such as health and family literacy, in addition to education programs.

The administration proposed $1.16 billion for the program in fiscal 2011, the same level as this fiscal year.

Secretary Duncan said, “What we tried to do … was focus our funding” around key areas, including student supports. “We want to have more students going to school longer hours.”

Rep. Kline also asked why the president proposed only a $250 million increase for special education in his fiscal 2011 budget. The program is slated to receive $12.5 billion in the budget proposal, about a 2 percent increase over fiscal year 2010.

“I just want to tell you how deeply disappointed I am,” Rep. Kline said. “There had to be groans from coast to coast” when districts saw the request, he said. “It should have been billions of dollars, not $250 million.”

He noted that there appears to be money in the budget available for other priorities, including a proposed $1 billion that would be contingent on Congress approving a renewal of the ESEA, and $1.35 billion to extend the Race to the Top competition for an additional year.

Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey, D-Calif., said she shared Rep. Kline’s views on special education funding. And she asked whether Mr. Duncan had plans to place a priority on students’ nonacademic needs.

“Some students are considerably more in need of support,” she said. “They aren’t fed well, they’re scared, they don’t have parental stability.”

Mr. Duncan said he “couldn’t agree more” that schools need to provide students with food, glasses, and other support in trying to raise achievement. He said that is why the administration has proposed $210 million in its budget for the Promise Neighborhoods, which would provide grants to communities and nonprofit organizations to create programs, modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, that would offer students comprehensive services, such as prekindergarten and college counseling, as part of a push to raise achievement.

Rep. Robert E. Andrews, D-N.J., asked how the department would like Congress to revamp assessments for English-language learners and students in special education. A number of schools in his districts are not meeting the achievement targets in the NCLB law because of those groups of students, he said.

Secretary Duncan said that he thinks that might be the toughest question the department has to tackle in reauthorization of the ESEA. He said he has tapped Alexa Posney, the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, and Thelma Melendez, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education and a former English-language learner herself, on how best to measure those students’ progress.

There was surprisingly little discussion during the hearing of the administration’s proposal to consolidate 38 smaller, targeted programs into 11 new funding streams.

Last week’s hearing was only the department’s second hearing on renewing the ESEA law. The first was held the previous week and centered on charter schools. After the hearing, Secretary Duncan told reporters that he hopes to begin work on renewing the ESEA law “soon,” but he declined to specify a timeline.

Similarly, during the hearing, Mr. Miller said Congress would like to get the renewal completed this year, but he couldn’t provide a target date yet for introducing a bill.

A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as House Panel Queries Duncan on ESEA, Budget Plan

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