News-in-Brief – July 2011

House Committee Introduces Funding Flex Bill

Representative John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, introduced the third in a series of bills that are part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently known as No Child Left Behind). In rolling out the State and Local Funding Flexibility Act, Mr. Kline stated the bill “addresses the problem I’ve heard from superintendents all across the country….. It has been perplexing to them and frustrating to schools all across the country that they cannot move money to where they need it.” The bill proposes to address this issue by allowing states and school districts to use ESEA funds currently directed to specific activities to redirect funds to a variety of other purposes under the law. The Chairman views this bill as a step toward the House majority’s goal of returning control of education to states and local districts and reducing the federal role in public education.

Two ESEA bills have passed in the House Committee and are awaiting floor action – Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act (H.R. 1891) and Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 2218). The first passed on a party-line vote, while the charter schools bill was bipartisan. Two other bills are being drafted and are expected to be introduced by the fall. The bills will focus on teacher quality and on accountability.

To read the legislative language and summaries and to learn about congressional actions, co-sponsors, and other information on any bills, go to http://THOMAS.loc.gov. You can search by the bill numbers or by the name of the bill. LDA will keep you informed as the ESEA reauthorization process continues.

Harkin Bill Addresses Positive School Climate

At a recent hearing on the “school-to-prison pipeline” (See Proposals Focused on Ending School-to-Prison Pipeline in this issue of LDA News-in-Brief), the presenters stated their support for the Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students Act (SSHSA, S. 919). LDA has signed on in support of this bill, sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), which seeks to improve student outcomes through promotion of physical and mental health and wellness, addressing bullying and harassment, and fostering a positive school climate.

SSHSA pulls together several sections of the current Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – physical education, school counseling, integration of mental health services, and violence prevention – and adds data collection and reporting on conditions for learning, including use of school climate surveys. To be eligible for funding under this formula grant program, states must have a statewide physical education requirement and must require all school districts in the state to establish policies that prohibit bullying and harassment. States will distribute competitive subgrants to school districts, with priority to districts with the highest poverty and greatest needs.

The bill also authorizes specific funding for states to develop or increase their capacity to collect and analyze data on conditions for learning in their schools. That analysis would be used to “implement positive, preventative approaches to school discipline, such as school-wide positive behavior supports and restorative justice, that improve student engagement while minimizing students’ removal from instruction and reducing significant school discipline rates and disciplinary disparities,” especially among the subgroups mentioned in ESEA, including students with disabilities.

Waiver Announcement Brings Strong Response

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the U.S. Department of Education would consider granting states waivers of certain statutory and regulatory provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Since the reauthorization of the ESEA has slowed considerably, the Administration believes waivers of certain requirements would provide relief from certain provisions, especially as states are faced with an increasing number of schools deemed in need of improvement and the looming 2014 deadline when all students are expected to meet proficiency. This announcement has brought a strong response from House Education and Workforce Chairman Kline (R-MN) and Ranking Member Miller (D-CA), both of whom are anxious to complete work on ESEA reauthorization.

Chairman Kline questioned the Secretary’s authority to grant waivers that require states’ agreement to certain conditions, such as focusing reforms on the lowest performing 5% of schools. Duncan has said waivers would be conditioned on a “basket of reforms,” and states would have to agree to all the contents of that basket.

Ranking Member Miller expressed concern that states would see waivers as an “escape route.” He has acknowledged changes need to be made in the law, but is especially concerned about ensuring accountability for poor and minority students, English language learners, and students with disabilities.

Kline requested an analysis from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which provides non-partisan policy and legal analysis to congressional committees and Members of both the House and Senate. In a memo dated June 28, 2011, CRS stated that, under Section 9401 of the ESEA, the Secretary of Education is given broad discretionary authority to grant waivers. However, those waivers are granted in response to a request from a grantee (state education agency or the local school district) and must meet certain criteria. Further, the Secretary may not grant waivers of certain provisions, including civil rights requirements, maintenance of effort, and “supplement, not supplant” requirements. CRS concludes that, if the Department invites states to voluntarily apply for waivers of certain requirements and attaches certain conditions for receipt of those waivers, the Department would be acting within the scope of its authority.

This conversation clearly is not over!

Proposals Focused on Ending School-to-Prison Pipeline

In a recent briefing on Capitol Hill, several national organizations rolled out joint recommendations for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) focused on ending the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to policies and practices emphasizing punitive consequences, exclusion, and juvenile justice intervention over the use of positive behavioral, academic, and disciplinary methods, such as counseling and other wraparound services. LDA is very concerned about this trend, given the statistics on the number of youth with specific learning disabilities in the justice system. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, seventy percent of children in the juvenile justice system have an educational disability, the vast majority of which are specific learning disabilities and emotional disabilities.

During the briefing, presenters spoke about an emerging trend where large numbers of youth of color and youth with disabilities are being removed from classrooms into the juvenile justice system. African American students are suspended at a rate of three times those of white students, while youth with disabilities are removed at double the rate of their non-disabled peers. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the number of students who have been pushed out has doubled since the 1970s.

Dr. Monty Neill, Executive Director of FairTest, drew a connection between the strong emphasis on high stakes testing and the narrowing of curriculum to students turning off to school and engaging in challenging behaviors. Jessica Feierman, Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia, also stated that the current accountability system under No Child Left Behind has created incentives for schools to remove students. The Act does not require tracking of students in the juvenile justice system or require any reporting on reentry and reenrollment.

To read the specific recommendations, go to www.dignityinschools.org/content/federal-policy-esea-reauthorization-and-school-prison-pipeline.

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