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Senators Signal Priorities for Renewal of ESEA

By Alyson Klein — March 12, 2010 4 min read
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As Congress gears up for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, questions from key lawmakers last week at the first hearing on the subject by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee gave a sense of their priorities.

For instance, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who served as U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, extolled the benefits of teacher pay-for-performance programs—and prodded one of the nation’s top teachers’ union officials on the topic.

Sen. Alexander asked Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, whether he supported the Teacher Incentive Fund, or TIF, a $400 million federal program that awards grants to districts to create such programs.

Mr. Van Roekel said he’s in favor of performance-based pay if his local affiliates agree to it through collective bargaining. But he doesn’t want teachers to be judged on just a single test score.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the committee, meanwhile, said he’s concerned about larger class sizes and thinks keeping them small could help teachers be more effective. Sen. Harkin, who also chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending, said he is worried that the federal government has stepped back from efforts to help districts reduce class sizes.

In talks with beginning teachers about how to improve retention efforts, he said, “the biggest single factor that has come through to me time and time again is the size of the classroom. It’s how many students they have to teach.”

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said that he doesn’t think the testing regime under the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the ESEA, makes sense. He wants to see more formative assessments to help gauge student progress throughout the school year.

“This is ridiculous, the way this is working,” he said of the NCLB law.

The Senate education committee plans to hold a series of hearings between now and the end of April on reauthorization of the ESEA, which was last renewed eight years ago.

Future topics are to include standards and assessments; school turnarounds; teachers and leaders; special populations, such as English-language learners and students in special education;and “educating the whole child,” a phrase typically used to describe the need to expose students to nonacademic subjects, including arts and physical education.

As of last week, federal lawmakers had yet to weigh in substantively on major ESEA ideas the Obama administration has floated recently in advance of a formal release of a reauthorization plan. Those ideas have included tying Title I money to adoption of rigorous common academic standards and replacing No Child Left Behind’s central measure—adequate yearly progress, or AYP—with a new mechanism designed to gauge students’ college and career readiness.

More-concrete reaction may come this week. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is scheduled to testify at hearings by the House and Senate education committees on the Obama administration’s ESEA priorities.

New Education Aid?

Meanwhile, House lawmakers have introduced a bill that includes $23 billion for states to help retain and create education jobs. It would also provide $75 billion in aid to local communities that could be used to hire teachers, as well as law-enforcement officers and others.

“If they need school aides, they can hire school aides—they know best what their community needs,”said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, one of the leading sponsors, along with Reps. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Phil Hare, D-Ill.

The bill comes as welcome news to education advocates, who are worried that Congress may not approve a jobs package that includes education aid in time to avert layoffs at the local level.

Last year, Congress approved up to $100 billion in education aid under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus law, but that money will largely have been allocated by the time the current federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. State—and school—budgets have not yet rebounded from the recession, setting schools up for what has been called a “funding cliff.”

The House passed a jobs bill in December that included $23 billion in new state aid to help retain teachers—language similar to that in Rep. Miller’s legislation. But it hasn’t yet gained much traction in the Senate.

Congress also approved a $15 billion measure earlier this month to spur the economy, but it didn’t include state aid specifically for education.

A coalition of education organizations—the American Association of School Administrators, the Council of Chief State School Officers,the National Association of State Boards of Education, the National School Boards Administration, and both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, among them—has been pushing for a jobs bill that includes money to help steady faltering school budgets.

College-Loan Jockeying

Sen. Harkin and Rep. Miller also are hoping to attach a bill making changes to the student-lending program to a broader legislative package to overhaul the U.S. health-care system.

Under the bill, all federal loans for college would originate through the Direct Lending program, in which students borrow directly from the U.S. Treasury, as opposed to the Federal Family Education Loan Program, which uses subsidized private lenders to do the job.

The move would free up $67 billion over 10 years, according to an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan arm of Congress. Those savings would be used to make a major change to the Pell Grant program, which helps low-income students pay for college.

A House version of the bill approved last fall also made room for major new spending on early-childhood education, school facilities, and community colleges.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as Senate Hearing Highlights Likely Issues in ESEA Renewal

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