News-in-Brief – February 2011

President Calls for Education Investments in State of the Union

In the 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama called for a “Sputnik” moment in education reform and innovation. The president reiterated his strong commitment to a federal investment in education, despite a critical need to cut spending and reduce the deficit. Meanwhile, as the FY 2012 budget process gets underway, deep cuts in domestic spending seem inevitable (See related article). So what impact with this have on federal education policy, and particularly the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently known as No Child Left Behind, NCLB)?

Obama specifically mentioned his interest in replacing the NCLB accountability system with a new federal framework that is fair, flexible, and focused on helping every student graduate ready for college and career. Rather than continuing to label 30,000 schools as “failing,” the president wants to target reform at America’s lowest-performing schools and those with the greatest achievement gaps. In turn, schools that make significant strides in helping their students succeed would be rewarded. The Administration continues to place strong emphasis on supporting teacher excellence and effectiveness, as well.

The Administration has made clear that the proposed FY 2012 budget plan again will include consolidation of 38 education programs into 11 new ones, presumably the same as those proposed last year in the president’s plan for ESEA reauthorization, A Blueprint for Reform (PDF).

In response to the State of the Union, Chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee John Kline (R-MN) stated that, “Our commitment to better schools cannot be measured in dollars and cents, but in the results achieved. For thirty years we have devoted greater federal tax dollars to education yet student achievement has remained flat. It is clear we need to rethink education in our country, not double-down on the same flawed philosophy that more spending will lead to better student outcomes.” Kline further stated that the president’s request for additional money for the Administration’s Race to the Top program “is especially offensive in light of the federal government’s failure to keep its promise to fund special education. No one can justify funding new federal programs at a time when unfunded federal mandates are increasing the strain on states’ already-strapped budgets”

These statements set up the Administration and particularly the Republican-controlled House for some interesting debates in next few months. While both want education reform and agree that spending cuts are inevitable, what those reforms will look like and where those cuts might come remain to be seen.

Administration Announces Disability Agenda

Kareem Dale, Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy, recently laid out the Administration’s 2011 agenda on issues related to disability. First and foremost is ratification of the U.N. Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Currently there are 147 countries signed on and 98 ratifications. The Administration will push to have the United States join this group.

Another important agenda item will be implementation of an Executive Order issued by the President in July 2010 to increase federal employment of individuals with disabilities. Mr. Dale and Christine Griffin, Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget, are working on policy development with federal agencies and informing the agencies about their enforcement plans, which are due in March.
The third agenda item focuses on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently known as No Child Left Behind). The Administration wants to see students with disabilities included in every aspect of the law, including aligning the ESEA and the IDEA to ensure all students are held to same high standards. LDA is actively involved in reauthorization discussions.
To make sure individuals with interests in disability policy are kept abreast of the Administration’s activities, Mr. Dale is hosting monthly calls from the White House. Each month speakers from various federal agencies provide information and take questions. Guests have included Judy Heumann, Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the State Department, and Alexa Posny, Assistant Secretary of Education for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. Visit the White House website for more information.

“Highly Qualified” Provision Raises Red Flags

LDA is part of a new coalition mobilized to develop policies to ensure a qualified teacher in every classroom. In December 2010, Congress passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government agencies operating until they set spending amounts for the current federal fiscal year. As often happens with this type of legislation, other provisions not directly related to the main bill are attached. A provision was passed on the December CR allowing individuals in alternative route teacher preparation programs to be considered “highly qualified” under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently known as NCLB) the moment they enter the program.

A regulation adopted shortly after NCLB was passed in 2002 allowed these individuals to be considered highly qualified teachers. In September 2010 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit issued an order in Renee v. Duncan striking down this provision. The court held the regulation conflicted with congressional intent under No Child Left Behind and that only teachers “who have obtained” full credentials may be deemed “highly qualified.”

The CR provision undoes the court’s work and once again allows individuals just entering alternative route preparation programs to be considered highly qualified teachers. This is particularly problematic for students with learning and other disabilities, English language learners, and at-risk students who need fully-prepared teachers to provide them equal opportunities to learn and achieve.

LDA is working in the coalition with higher education and K-12 organizations and disability and civil rights groups to repeal the CR provision. Letters have been sent to the president and leadership of the House and Senate. The coalition is concerned that some traditional education friends on Capitol Hill supported the CR provision, reasoning it would be better to fully debate the issue under the reauthorization of the ESEA. This may not be the most prudent path. Currently in California alone, more than 8,000 “intern teachers” are designated “highly qualified,” over half of whom teach special education.

LDA is working for you and will keep you informed as this issue is debated.

Major Cuts in Domestic Spending Projected

Education advocates have been bracing for what are expected to be draconian cuts for federal Fiscal Year 2012. This news comes amid record federal deficits, soaring debt, and a somewhat stagnant economy. Under the new House Republican leadership, most federal agencies are likely to experience sharp budget cuts.

Congress is dealing with a still-unresolved spending plan for Fiscal Year 2011. A Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires in less than a month has been in place since the lame-duck session of last Congress and has kept program funding amounts at FY 2010 levels. Another short-term CR is likely while lawmakers grapple with new rules and tight spending limits. To complicate matters further, the president will release his budget proposal for FY 2012 on February 14th.

President Obama stated his desire for a five-year spending freeze during the State of the Union Address. The House majority has gone even further, recommending reductions to the FY 2008 or even FY 2006 levels. House Republican are planning to propose an aggregate cut of around $50 billion, but possible floor amendments could raise that level to $100 billion.

The Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations subcommittee will receive a much smaller allocation for all the education, social services, health, and job training programs. In fact, the total proposed cut for all education programs could amount to 7.3% or $5.1 billion. According to a January 26th Gallup poll, the American public opposes cutting education programs more than any other program area (Social Security, Medicare, defense, farm aid, etc.).

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