In late November, Congress proposed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) would reauthorize ESEA, which has been due for a rewrite since 2007, marking a new period for the law established exactly 50 years ago by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The 1,061-page proposal, however, would maintain high levels of spending and dozens of ineffective programs, while creating new programs.
Any proposal to reauthorize ESEA should include portability for Title I funding—the bulk of spending under the law, designated for low-income school districts—in order to empower poor children to access learning options that work well for them. Proposals should also allow states to completely opt out of the programs under ESEA, through a provision known as A-PLUS (based on the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act), in order to direct dollars to state and local education priorities and limit federal intervention in education. Finally, any reauthorization should streamline programs and end the federal education spending spree. The proposed ESSA does not accomplish these critical policy priorities.
Change in Titles and Purpose of Titles from NCLB to ESSA
ESSA would make significant changes to the current NCLB authorization, consolidating some programs, repurposing others, and adding entirely new programs, including a $250 million preschool initiative to be jointly administered by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Education. Following is a brief review of the nine titles in the proposed reauthorization:
Title I. Title I of the ESSA changes from “improving the academic achievement of the disadvantaged” to “improving basic programs operated by state and local educational agencies.” Spending under Title I, Part A of ESSA increases from approximately $14.4 billion to an authorized level of $15 billion in 2017, and to $16.2 billion by 2020. Funding for reading programs (Part B), migrant education (Part C), and intervention programs for at-risk children (Part D), remains steady.
Currently, states can set aside 4 percent of Title I funding for school improvement purposes. In 2009, the Obama Administration created the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program as a stand-alone initiative funded primarily through more than $3 billion provided through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), often referred to as the stimulus package. The SIG program was geared toward turning around the worst performing schools in a state through specific interventions tied to the stimulus funds. Under the ESSA, the structure of the SIG program is eliminated, but the existing 4 percent set aside in Title I is increased to 7 percent, to be used for school improvement activities. Although the SIG program is eliminated, states will now be able to use a larger share of Title I funding for the same purpose, with overall Title I funding increasing as well. So while the SIG program disappears in law, funding for its functions effectively remains intact.
Title II. Title II of the ESSA remains geared toward preparing, training, and recruiting high-quality teachers and principals. Supporting Effective Instruction comprises the new Title II, Part A funding, which remains relatively steady, at approximately $2.3 billion annually through 2020. Supporting Effective Instruction grants provide federal funding to states for recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers and principals.
Funding for national activities authorized under Title II, Part B also remains steady, at approximately $490 million annually through 2020. National activities include, among other programs, teacher and principal programs, literacy initiatives, civics and history programs (a new initiative under the ESSA), and a new program known as the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Master Teacher Corps. The STEM Master Teacher Corps had been introduced as a stand-alone bill by Senator Al Franken (D–MN) in February 2015 in an effort to create a network of STEM leaders who would be eligible to receive additional compensation funded through the federal program.
Title III. Title III of the ESSA covers language instruction for English Language Learners, as it did under No Child Left Behind. Funding for the title’s three subparts increases from $737 million in 2015 to $885 million annually by 2020.
Title IV. Title IV of the ESSA remains the 21st Century Schools title. However, the ESSA adds a significant new program under Part A. Part A of Title IV—formerly the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program under NCLB—had not been funded since 2007, when Congress appropriated $270 million. The ESSA would reconstitute Part A into the Student Support and Academic Enrichment program, and would authorize the new program at $1.6 billion annually through 2020. That authorized amount comes in addition to the authorized $1.1 billion in Part B, which funds the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program. Part A would then require states to spend 20 percent of those funds on “well-rounded educational opportunities,” 20 percent of those funds on “safe and healthy students,” and a portion of the funding on the “effective use of technology.” Part B authorizes $1.1 billion for 21st Century Community Learning Centers that offer after-school academic enrichment programs. Part C includes federal funding for charter schools, which would increase from $253 million in 2015 to $300 million by 2020. Funding is similarly increased for magnet schools, which Part D of Title IV would increase from $92 million in 2015 to nearly $109 million by 2020.
Part E of Title IV would also provide $10 million in federal funding beginning in 2017 and continuing through 2020 to reconstitute the Parental Information and Resources Center (PIRC)—which had not been funded since 2010—into statewide Family Engagement in Education Programs. These programs would, among other purposes, “assist the Secretary, State educational agencies, and local educational agencies in the coordination and integration of Federal, State, and local services and programs to engage families in education.” The U.S. Secretary of Education would award grants to statewide organizations to establish family engagement centers to “carry out parent education, and family engagement in education, programs; or provide comprehensive training and technical assistance to State educational agencies, local educational agencies…organizations that support family-school partnerships, and other organizations that carry out such programs.” Specifically, statewide family engagement centers would be able to access funding to, among other goals, “assist parents in participating effectively in their children’s education and to help their children meet challenging State academic standards,” and assist parents “to engage in activities that will improve student academic achievement, including understanding how parents can support learning in the classroom with activities at home and in after school and extracurricular programs.”
Part E of Title IV would also include funding for “education innovation,” Promise Neighborhoods (funding to nonprofit and other entities to benefit children in distressed communities), full-service community schools, arts education, Ready to Learn television, and gifted and talented education programs.
Title V. Title V, which previously consisted of the “promoting informed parental choice and innovative programs” title, becomes the “state innovation and local flexibility” title of the ESSA. Under the new Title V, the ESSA enables some funding transferability, a pilot program for weighted student funding, and nearly $170 million for rural education programs from 2015 through 2020.
Title VI. Title VI of the ESSA would authorize programs for American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native students, authorizing approximately $160 million annually from 2015 through 2020.
Title VII. Title VII of the ESSA would become Impact Aid (formerly Title VIII of NCLB), which would continue to authorize funding for schools located on federal property not generating tax revenue. The total authorized amount for programs funded under Title VII would grow from nearly $1.3 billion annually to approximately $1.4 billion annually from 2015 through 2020.
Title VIII. Title VIII of the ESSA (formerly Impact Aid under NCLB) becomes the law’s general provisions section, providing definitions of terms, outlining the use of administrative funding, and detailing waivers, among other regulations. As with NCLB, a state may request a waiver from the Secretary of Education for specific statutory or regulatory provisions under the ESSA. However, the ESSA would specifically prohibit the Secretary from requiring states or schools to adopt specific standards or assessments, such as the Common Core State Standards, or require adoption of specific state accountability systems or teacher evaluation models to qualify for a waiver.
Title IX. Title IX of the ESSA (formerly the general provisions section of NCLB) would become the title covering homeless children and youths. The ESSA would increase funding under Part A of Title IX, which provides funding for homeless children, from approximately $65 million annually in 2015 to $85 million annually from 2017 through 2020. Notably, Title IX would house the new federal preschool program authorized by the ESSA, and authorize annual funding at $250 million. The new preschool program would be housed at HHS, and jointly administered with the Department of Education. The funding would be available to states to help coordinate existing government preschool programs, such as those operated by the states and Head Start, and to establish new preschool programs.
ESSA: Federal Intervention in K–12, Mission Creep into Pre-K
Although the proposal makes important changes to current federal law known as No Child Left Behind, it continues federal intervention into local schools in too many areas, and expands it in several others.
Annual Testing and AYP. The Obama Administration and others have made much of “over testing” in recent months. Because many states use their own tests to assess students in advance of the federally mandated state tests, students in large districts may take an average of 112 mandated standardized tests by the time they graduate. Although the ESSA would end the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) mandates under NCLB, which require that all students in all states make “adequate” annual progress toward universal proficiency in math and reading or have the state risk federal sanctions, the proposal would keep the annual testing structure in place. The proposal would retain the annual testing requirement that students be tested every year in grades three through eight and again in high school. Regardless of the relative merits of standardized testing, federally mandated annual testing would continue to have a real effect on local school policy.
The ESSA would also include requirements for the new “state-based” accountability plans. Although less prescriptive than AYP, the proposal is specific about the types and the proportion of accountability options that must be included. Within a state’s accountability plan, “substantial weight” would have to be given to quantitative measures, such as graduation rates and performance on state tests, with much less weight allotted to subjective measures, such as school climate and educator engagement. Under the new proposal, states would also be required to intervene in the lowest performing 5 percent of schools, have school-level interventions in schools in which subgroups of students perform poorly, and intervene in schools in which fewer than two-thirds of students graduate.
Preschool Programs. As noted, the agreement would also cement a new preschool program at HHS (which currently manages Head Start). Some funding has been appropriated for the preschool program for the past two years. However, the new ESSA would codify the new $250 million federal preschool program, expanding the scope of the ESEA. Additionally, this move would continue the trend of growth in federal programs affecting the youngest Americans at a time when there is more empirical evidence than ever on the shortcomings of government preschool programs.
New Federal Programs and Spending. The proposal would expand rural education programs and after-school programs and create a new version of the Investing in Innovation program. (Although the i3 program, as it currently stands, is eliminated.) It reconstitutes the Parental Information and Resources Center—not funded since 2010—into statewide Family Engagement in Education Programs. The ESSA would also establish a new program known as Presidential Academies for the Teaching of American History and Civics, which would provide professional development to improve the teaching of history and civics to between 50 and 300 teachers annually, selected from public and private elementary and secondary schools throughout the country. Funding would be available to teachers to attend a two-week to six-week seminar taught by “primary scholars.” “Congressional Academies” would operate similarly, but would be open to high school juniors and seniors at the recommendation of their principals. The proposal would retain a labyrinth of federal programs, and high levels of federal spending. The ESSA authorizes historically high levels of federal education spending, continuing a trend that has increased federal intervention in local school policy while failing to improve educational outcomes for children.
Missed Opportunities to Restore State, Local, and Parental Control. The ESSA does not include an option for Title I portability. Title I of the ESEA has failed to meet its objective of improving educational outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. A better strategy for reaching that goal would be to transform Title I by allowing states the flexibility to make Title I dollars “portable,” so that the dollars follow the child to the school or educational option of the parents’ choosing. Any reauthorization of the ESEA should allow states to make Title I dollars portable, following students to a public, charter, or private school of choice. The lack of Title I portability in the ESSA proposal is a missed opportunity for empowering parents and making Title I work better for the low-income children it was designed to help.
The ESSA would also require states to stay in the labyrinthine federal framework by not including the A-PLUS provision. Over the summer of 2015, the House and Senate considered an amendment based on the A-PLUS proposal, which would allow states to opt out completely and put dollars toward any education purpose allowed under state law. The amendment received 195 votes in the House and 44 votes in the Senate (amounting to 80 percent of Republicans in Congress), yet is not part of this proposal.
Exit from Common Core Remains a State Leadership Issue. Proponents of ESEA reauthorization have argued that the ESSA would prohibit the U.S. Secretary of Education from encouraging states to adopt Common Core and would otherwise rein in the Department of Education. However, since states have already adopted the national standards and tests, it is now up to states to fully exit Common Core. Moreover, there were already prohibitions in three federal laws against federal involvement in curriculum-setting. It is unlikely that the additional prohibition in the ESSA would have a different effect since federal involvement has already served to inculcate Common Core.
Although it makes some important changes to NCLB, such as eliminating AYP mandates, the proposed ESSA would not accomplish important policy priorities of allowing states to make funding for Title I portable, allowing states to completely opt out through the A-PLUS provision, or cutting programs and spending that have accumulated over the decades in a manner that has failed students and burdened school leaders with red tape. As such, the proposed ESSA does not accomplish conservative policy priorities and would maintain significant federal intervention in local school policy for years to come.—Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy in the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.