LDA Legislative News – January 2015

LamarAlexanderEducation Debate Takes Center Stage

The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, known currently as No Child Left Behind, NCLB) is eight years overdue.  Each chamber of Congress has introduced multiple bills over the last seven years in an attempt to find common ground, but without success.  The leadership in the new Congress has indicated both in words and action that they intend to pass a bill this year.   

To get the process started, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, released a draft bill in early January. He is soliciting comments, due on February 2, from other members of Congress and the public and has scheduled three congressional hearings on specific areas of concern.

The bill, based on legislation Alexander introduced in the last Congress, makes some major changes to current law.  Tops among those changes include elimination of the current state accountability system based on “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) and options to replace the NCLB requirement of grades 3 through 8 annual testing in reading and math and testing in those subjects once in grades 9 through 12.

The annual testing requirement has been quite controversial since its implementation, with questions about what the tests measure and whether they have improved results for students.  Senator Alexander has asked stakeholders to comment on one of two options for final inclusion in the bill when it is introduced. 

 The first option would require states to adopt an assessment system that could include an array of options, including annual testing, grade-span testing (testing once in grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12), a hybrid of those plans, performance-based assessments, formative assessments, multiple state assessments within a year that result in a summative score, or any other system of assessment the state deems appropriate.  Option Two maintains the current statewide testing scheme with one significant change.  An individual school district would be allowed to administer its own assessments if the district receives permission from the state and the locally-designed test meets the same criteria as the statewide test.  Both options include provision for alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards for students with significant cognitive disabilities and also alternate assessments based on grade-level standards.  One important difference is lifting the current cap of 1 percent on testing students on alternate assessments based on alternate standards, although the IEP team would still have a key role in deciding which students receive these assessments based on specific guidelines.

The elimination of AYP represents a critical difference from current law. In NCLB, adequate yearly progress is the measure by which all schools are held accountable for student performance, including a requirement of 100 percent proficiency for all students,  In place of AYP, states would develop their own accountability systems that track student achievement, provide disaggregated data by student subgroups including students with disabilities, and take into account high school graduation rates based on a four-year adjusted cohort and extended-year graduation.   

Current law includes an elaborate system for states to identify and work with low-performing schools, including measures some critics have viewed as quite punitive.  Under the proposed bill, states would identify schools receiving ESEA-Title I funds “in need of strategies for improving student achievement and any other measures determined appropriate by the state.”  Rather than the NCLB list of school improvement requirements, states would have leeway to determine strategies for assisting low-performing schools.  The ESEA waivers awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to most states over the last several years required states to identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools (“priority”) for intensive interventions and another 10 percent (“focus”) for more targeted assistance.  The Alexander bill does not specify how many or what type of schools must be identified. 

The Alexander bill includes another major change to current law:  elimination of the “highly qualified teacher” (HQT) provision.  In lieu of HQT, states would provide assurance that teachers meet state certification or licensure requirements.  In addition, states would not be required to develop teacher evaluation systems, although funds under Title II of ESEA (teacher/principal training and professional development) could be used for this purpose.  As a condition of receipt of ESEA waivers, states were required to develop evaluation systems. 

Regarding the timing of the reauthorization of ESEA, the release of the Senate bill was the first step in the process.  Chairman Alexander has said he would like to have a bill to the HELP Committee by mid-February.  The ranking Democratic member on the committee, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), has very definite views as a former educator and parent advocate.  Therefore, negotiations are ongoing between Republican and Democratic staff, in the hope that the bill that comes before the HELP Committee can be a bipartisan effort.  On the House side, Representative John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, has also said he would like to move a bill quickly.  As the starting point, his staff is reviewing and revising the “Student Success Act” which passed the House in the last session of Congress.  That bill did not have the support of Democrats on the Committee, and it is unclear at this time if the Chairman will move a similar bill without bipartisan support.  

LDA staff has read the Alexander bill carefully and has updated the organization’s recommendations to Congress.  Over the last seven years’ attempts to reauthorize the law, LDA has updated these recommendations three times and continues to monitor every congressional action on a daily basis.  This includes regular meetings with congressional staff, work with coalition partners, and constant communications between LDA staff and members of the Public Policy Committee.  We will continue to update you through the LDA Legislative News and LDA Today, as well as through Action Alerts to LDA members as those are warranted. 

sequestrationSequestration Still the Law of the Land

For those of you who thought sequestration –deep across-the-board cuts and tightening of budget caps – was a thing of the past, think again.  Sequestration, a process passed in the Budget Control Act of 2011, was tempered in 2013 through 2015 in a budget deal brokered by Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), then chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees.  However, with Fiscal Year 2016 (FY 2016), which begins on October 1, 2015, sequestration returns.  

So what does this mean?  Beginning in FY 2016, caps on federal spending will begin to shrink and will continue to do so through FY 2021 under current law.  In fact, new House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) has already stated his wants to balance the federal budget in under ten years.  To accomplish this, draconian cuts will be required to all non-defense discretionary (NDD) programs – basically all function of the government other than defense, homeland security, and entitlement programs.  NDD includes among other functions education, health, job training, social services, public safety, environment, commerce, transportation, and veterans services.  

NDD programs have been disproportionately affected by dramatic cuts in recent years, even as experts across the political spectrum agree these programs are not the cause of the country’s fiscal woes.  As a result of sequestration, NDD funding in FY 2014 was about 15 percent below FY 2010 levels, adjusted for inflation.  If Congress does not act to remove sequestration, in FY 2016 NDD programs will dip to 3.1 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), the lowest level in at least 50 years. Most important, cuts to NDD programs are felt by everyone.  These cuts mean a slower economic recovery, decrease in our public health preparedness and response, fewer resources for K-12 and higher education, a negative impact on research across the board, and continued erosion of the country’s infrastructure.  

Deficit reduction since 2010 has come mostly from spending cuts, with much less attention to increasing revenues again recommended by experts on both sides of the political aisle.  There was also bipartisan agreement in the last Congress that sequestration is generally bad public policy and hurts more than it will help.  LDA is continuing its active participation in a coalition of well over 1,000 state and federal organizations calling on Congress to replace sequestration with a balanced approach to deficit reduction that maintains the integrity of these vital programs.  Hopefully, Congress will listen to the experts and to average citizens and look for other more sensible ways to address the nation’s fiscal concerns.

114 congressWho’s Who in the 114th Congress?

The 114th Congress was seated the first week of January 2015, with a new cast of characters. With the results of the 2014 fall election, the majority in the United States Senate shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans.  Whereas in the last Congress all Senate committee chairmen were Democrats, the majority shifts means Republican Senators have assumed chairmanship of committees.  In addition, with additional Republican members in the House of Representatives, the ratio for Republicans to Democrats on all committees tilts more heavily toward Republicans.  

So who are the key committee chairmen and ranking Democratic members on committees of interest to LDA members?  If you’ll look below, you can see if any of these important positions are occupied by senators or representatives from your state or congressional district.  LDA needs the help of constituents like you throughout the year to help establish strong relationships on Capitol Hill.  After all, members of Congress want to help the citizens who vote in their home states and districts.

  • Senate Appropriations Committee                                                                                                                                                         (spending committee)
    • Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS)
    • Ranking Member Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)
  • Senate Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations Subcommittee                                                             (jurisdiction over spending on education, health, and job training programs)
    • Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO)
    • Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA)
  • Senate Budget Committee
    • Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY)
    • Ranking Member Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
  • Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee                                                                                                   (jurisdiction over authorization of education, health, job training programs)
    • Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
    • Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA)
  • House Appropriations Committee
    • Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY)
    • Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D-NY)
  • House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee
    • Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK)
    • Ranking  Member Rosa DeLauro (D-CT)
  • House Budget Committee
    • Chairman Tom Price (R-GA)
    • Ranking Member Chris Van  Hollen (D-MD)
  • House Education and Workforce Committee                                                                                                                                                          (jurisdiction over authorization of education and job training issues)
    • Chairman John Kline (R-MN)
    • Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA).

 Go to http://thomas.loc.gov/home/thomas.php for a great one-stop website for information about what’s happening in Congress, bills that are introduced, links to all House and Senate members, information about the legislative process and more.  LDA urges you to use this resource and to read all LDA publications to keep abreast of what is happening in Congress.  LDA keeps YOU informed about issues and actions of importance to families, individuals with learning disabilities, and the professionals that serve them!         

2-11-State-of-the-Union-2President Proposes Help on College Costs

In the State of the Union speech on January 20, the president proposed to simplify and consolidate tax benefits through improvements to the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC).  These changes are targeted at providing more students assistance to attend higher education, including non-traditional students who may not be attending full-time.  

The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) was created in 2009 to help make college more affordable and is set to expire in 2017.  The plan calls for consolidation of other education benefits into the AOTC and making the AOTC permanent, thus relieving students currently in school of worry that benefits might expire before graduation.  The Lifetime Learning credit and the tuition and fees deductions that are part of the tax code would be part of this consolidation.

The plan includes a proposal that has enjoyed bipartisan support to increase the refundable portion of the AOTC, so more working families can qualify.  Similar to legislation that passed the House last year, the proposal would increase the refundable portion from a maximum of $1,000, or 40 percent of the total AOTC benefit, to a flat maximum of $1,500.

In addition, the proposal expands AOTC eligibility for non-traditional students.  At present, students must be in school at least half-time to qualify, and families can only claim the credit for four years.  Under the president’s proposal, part-time students would be eligible for a $1,250 AOTC (up to $750 refundable), and all eligible students could claim the AOTC for up to five years.

To relieve some of the confusion in applying for these tax credits, colleges and universities would be required to provide students with the tuition and fee information they need to claim the AOTC.  In addition, the plan calls for exempting Pell Grants from taxation and the AOTC calculation, making it easier for Pell recipients to claim benefits of which many students currently do not take advantage.

Among other provisions in the president’s plan, he calls for consolidation of education savings incentives into one program and would redirect the savings into the AOTC.  Specifically, the plan would roll back expanded tax cuts for 529 savings plans for new contributions and repeal tax incentives prospectively for the Coverdell education savings program.

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Comments

  1. Latricia Jacobs says:

    As an educator for over 29 years, I hear more and more of our parents and students complaining about the state tests. I believe in accountability, but the emphasis the government has placed on state testing is ludicrous. When you have teachers leaving the profession because of the stress, parents asking if their child can be absent on state testing days, and children as young as 8 years old stressing over test results to “tell” them whether or not they are “smart,” we have some serious issues. I believe our government has lost their vision as to what is BEST for our children. I want to laugh out loud every time I hear our elected officials “talk” about local control to our districts; local control has been gradually removed throughout the years. Please, listen to your parents, your teachers, and above all, our children and reconsider the high-stakes testing. I will not remain in education much longer, but my heart will remain with our children, teachers, and parents.
    Sincerely,
    Latricia Jacobs
    Director of Curriculum
    Woden ISD

  2. Cynthia Murray says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Latricia. As a parent of elementary and middle school students, I have seen the stress in our school, the “teaching to the test,” and the town using MCAS results as bragging rights for our school system. People have forgotten what elementary school is about: the enjoyment of learning, and a positive social experience in the community of teachers and learners. There are better ways to identify children with learning challenges than mandated standardized testing. Let’s be honest, and dismantle programs that are not in our children’s best interests.
    Cynthia Murray
    Parent, Lexington Public Schools

  3. H.Braswell says:

    This does not pertain to this particular article, but mainly to the LD community and Law Makers and also to the so called organizations who are suppose to be a support system for these folks. There are several major things missing from every so called supportive organization. Housing does not seem to be a major consideration in any of these support programs, but how can I even began to focus on a secondary education as a person with these disabilities if I never know from one minute to the next if i’ll be homeless. Believe me when homelessness is on the top of your list of concerns of at every moment of every day and year that goes by, whatever crappy education America is offering doesn’t mean anything to me at all, because every wonderful thing that is “OFFERED AT THE SCHOOL”, if I’m homeless and carless= without a car NONE OF THOSE THEORETICAL Things are ACCESSIBLE TO ME ANYWAY. The People who could address these issues and coach the people who run this country, and I will add, whom of which they are not people who have suffered the real life affects of these issues, long story short, we are not EMPLOYING THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE REAL KNOWLEGE AND INSIGHT ON SOLVING OR SUPPORTING People with these issues. I can’t Multi-task but if I was given the task of creating some PILOT Programs that would truly address every factor involved with these Adults with these issues as well as a secretary I would need, it would be done simple and easy. But I would never even be considered #1 because we live in a caste pompass collegiate society and if we do not at least posses a Bachelors degree we are considered uneducated and unable to provide valuable information to solving and or supporting these people with solutions. We are just people who are looking for a hand out and people and powerful positions should not concern their selves with us.Just actually employ the people who don’t have parents because thats a whole nother issue that also is not addressed in these communities and don’t have these Collgiate degrees to solve the problems. They are the only people that actually know what really exists to help them, which is next to nothing, and that really know whats missing at every level, to close the gaps.

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