News-in-Brief – February 2012

House ESEA Bill Rethinks Funding and MOE

The House Education and Workforce Committee is poised to consider the Student Success Act, a comprehensive bill released in early January by Chairman John Kline (R-MN) to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently known as No Child Left Behind). The bill would radically change how funding is configured under current law, moving programs with targeted funding streams for specific student populations under the same section in Title I that funds low-income students. Recommended for consolidation into the larger Title grants are those programs for English language learners, migrant, neglected and delinquent students, and rural students and the Indian education programs. Students with specific learning disabilities are found in each of these categories and benefit from the targeted dollars for these programs. This major shift in policy could significantly loosen requirements on how states and local school districts can spend federal education money.

In addition to the proposed block granting of these five programs under Title I, the Student Success Act includes a flexibility provision. This provision would allow states and local districts to use the blended funds from these programs, as well as state administrative and school improvement funds, for any purposes mentioned for those programs or for Title I, Part A (Education for the Disadvantaged). States and districts would not have to report the new uses of the funds or what, if any, programs and services were eliminated due to this provision.

Presently, the law only allows states and school districts to transfer up to 50 percent of funds under the Education Technology (not currently funded), Safe and Drug-Free Schools, and school choice programs into Title I. Funds for the five programs listed under the flexibility provision of the bill may not be transferred under current law into other accounts. Critics are concerned that allowing states and school districts to merge funding traditionally targeted for certain high-need populations could mean these students’ needs are not properly addressed.

The House bill also would eliminate the Title I maintenance of effort (MOE) provision, allowing state and local governments to cut per pupil or overall spending for education to school districts, while still maintaining eligibility for Title I funding. Current law allows a local school district to receive Title I Part A funds in the next school year only if state and local governments give the district at least 90 percent of the per pupil or overall funding provided in the preceding year. Elimination of the MOE provision could result in states and local governments decreasing their share of education funding and increasing the percentage of per pupil funding provided through federal funds.

These changes should be examined very closely. Taken together they would radically change accountability on states and local districts for the use of Title I funds. In essence, Title I would become a large block grant, with the possible consequence of decreasing important services to vulnerable students.

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NIH To Fund New LD Research Centers

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced funding for four centers to conduct research on the causes and treatment of learning disabilities in children and adolescents. The centers, established in 1989 by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), are funded competitively, and the last grants were made in 2006.

The four grant recipients are as follows:

The centers will emphasize increased understanding of how individuals learn to write and the best ways to instruct students with learning disabilities in writing. Another research area will be on reading comprehension, while past efforts have been more focused on decoding. According to Dr. Brett Miller, director of the Reading, Writing, and Related Learning Disabilities Program at NICHD, “Researchers have made great progress in understanding how children learn to read text…but it’s also important that we learn how individuals develop understanding of what they read…”

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Some ESEA Waiver States Propose Subgroup Changes

While Congress continues work to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently known as No Child Left Behind), the U.S. Department of Education has undertaken to provide waivers to states of certain burdensome provisions (See News in Brief, August 2011). A disturbing trend has emerged in the first round of those waiver applications. Of the eleven states submitting applications for the first round of waivers, nine states intend to base most accountability decisions on achievement of only two subgroups – all students and a “disadvantaged” student subgroup or “super subgroup.” Current law requires states and school districts to be accountable for four subgroups – students with disabilities, English-language learners, racial minorities, and economically disadvantaged students.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and Representative George Miller (D-CA), ranking member on the House Education and Workforce Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of Education Duncan expressing deep concerns about this trend. Harkin and Miller, both long-time advocates for students with disabilities and students in all the subgroups, urged the Secretary to “consider each applicant’s subgroup performance measures as significant and coherent components of overall accountability and require applicants to articulate meaningful and effective interventions for schools that are low performing or have subgroups that fail to progress” (Letter to Duncan, Jan. 17, 2012).

Disability advocates have maintained since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 that subgroup accountability is one of the strongest provisions in the law. Disaggregating data and public reporting on achievement of these students have shone a light on the continuing achievement gaps and pushed states and local school districts to be accountable for every student in their charge. Losing these requirements is considered a major step backward in the efforts to ensure all students are making academic progress. States argue, on the other hand, that combining subgroups will result in more schools and students being captured in accountability systems and that using the bottom 25 percent as the measure could be applied equally to every school, large or small.

In reviewing the waiver applications, Florida, Indiana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma propose to combine subgroups by focusing on the bottom 25 percent of students in each school, regardless of whether they are in a specific subgroup. Massachusetts would create a “high-needs” subgroup, combining students with disabilities, English language learners, and low-income students. Kentucky creates a “student-gap group” that also combines smaller subgroups. Minnesota focuses heavier weight on larger subgroups. Rather than having specific goals for each subgroup, Tennessee looks at closing gaps generally.

The first round of winners should be announced shortly. Implementation of these proposals will be the only way to assess the effect of combining these groups on student achievement.
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