News-in-Brief – November 2011

Senate HELP Committee Passes ESEA Bill

On October 21, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee passed a comprehensive bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently known as No Child Left Behind). All Democrats, joined by three Republican senators, Enzi (WY), Alexander (TN), and Kirk (IL), voted for the bill. LDA produced recommendations for the reauthorization of ESEA in 2007 and has updated them several times over the course of the last few years. These recommendations have been shared and discussed with all members of the Senate and House education committees, and LDA staff has been working behind the scenes to move our recommendations forward. More….

The HELP Committee bill must now go to the full Senate for consideration. There were nearly 150 amendments during the committee consideration, and there will most likely be many floor amendments, as well. The bill may not reach the floor until after the first of the year, although Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) would like to have it done before the winter recess in December.

Passage of the ESEA with strong supports for students with learning disabilities is the top priority for LDA currently. Following is a brief review of the status of the LDA ESEA recommendations:

  • Provide students with learning disabilities access to the general education curriculum. The underlying premise of current law and continued in this bill is that all students will participate in the general education curriculum. To assist students with SLD in accessing curriculum, the bill references universally designed curriculum and assessments and also includes a new literacy program (birth through grade 12) that has received LDA’s strong support. Language is also included on professional development for educators in appropriate use of accommodations.
  • For accountability purposes, maintain “students with disabilities” as a specific subgroup. The accountability system has changed significantly in this bill (elimination of adequate yearly progress and annual measurable objectives; addition of “college and career readiness”; moving much of the accountability from federal to state systems). However, the focus on the four subgroups remains, including state and local reporting on progress of those groups through disaggregation of data. Also, LDA had been concerned that the IEP would be used as the accountability tool for students with disabilities. This bill does not move in that direction.
  • Allow appropriate out-of-level assessments for all students. The legislation allows states in designing their accountability systems to use a growth measure to assess student progress. However, the bill does not allow specifically for out-of-level testing.
  • Identify students with learning and behavioral challenges early and provide targeted instruction before referral for special education services. The Senate bill includes a number of references to the use of “multi-tier systems of support” (MTSS) as a good instructional strategy. The bill also references “positive behavioral supports.” LDA believes including MTSS and PBS in the ESEA would put these initiatives where they belong: in general education before a student is referred for special education.
  • Allow the use of a growth-based accountability model to measure student improvement. As noted above, growth measures are allowed, if states wish to incorporate them, as part of a state accountability system. States may show how a student who is not “on-track” on academic performance will attain a rate of growth to move them to “on-track” performance within a specified number of years.
  • Ensure teachers deemed “highly qualified” have skills and knowledge to address the academic and behavioral needs of the students for whom they are responsible. The issue of “highly qualified” teacher received a lot of discussion during the committee’s consideration of the bill. Currently the definition of “highly qualified” is similar to current law.
  • Empower family members and students to be effective advocates through specific training and technical assistance. The bill enhances the current parent involvement provisions. However, language requested by LDA on self-advocacy is not in the bill.
  • Ensure all students are afforded graduation pathways that provide quality educational programming which fulfills their interests, talents, and career goals. The legislation is built around “college and career readiness” and allows for graduation in more than the traditional four years. However, there is little acknowledgement of other pathways to success.
  • Include a definition of Universal Design for Learning and incorporate these principles throughout the ESEA. The Senate bill includes the definition of UDL that was included several years ago in the Higher Education Act and a number of references to the use of UDL as an important instructional strategy.
  • Require schools to determine and assure the availability of social and mental health services. The bill adopts the term “conditions for learning” and provides grant funds for school districts to do surveys and assess their capacity. However, current strong language on school mental health services has been taken out of the bill.

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Super Committee Action in Doubt

The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, the “Super Committee,” must vote no later than November 23, 2011, on how it proposes to achieve at least $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction between Fiscal Year 2012 (FY 2012) and FY 2021. As the deadline draws closer, there are growing doubts the Committee will reach agreement. If a deal cannot be brokered, a process known as sequestration will be triggered. That means $1.2 trillion in automatic across-the-board cuts to all federal agencies, including Defense. More….

If sequestration occurs, Medicare providers would take an $11 billion hit and another $38 billion would be taken from other federal agencies. Education, health, and social services, which have already seen cuts over the last several years through the normal appropriations process, would be seriously impacted. In addition, these cuts will cost the jobs of many federal employees.

Role reversal has occurred through some of these discussions. Republican members of the Committee initially said they would not entertain changes in the tax laws to increase revenues. However, they recently retreated from that position, offering a plan that would increase revenues that included $300 billion in new taxes. On the other side of the aisle, the Democrats presented a plan that included significant cuts in Medicare and Medicaid.

Despite the moves on each side to get the other on board, Republicans and Democrats remain far apart. Committee members’ own parties are not supportive of the proposals that have emerged thus far. The bottom line is that, even if the Committee reaches an agreement by the November deadline, Congress will have to vote to approve the deal, and that possibility seems unlikely.

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Congressional Briefing Focuses on Children’s SSI

A recent briefing in the House Ways and Means Committee gave some hope to families that committee members are willing to hold off on changes to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for low-income children. Earlier this year the U.S. House of Representatives passed a budget resolution which would have resulted in $1.4 billion in cuts to SSI. This program is critical for many families who cannot afford the care necessary for a child with serious physical or mental disabilities. SSI has recently come under attack, fueled by a number of misleading media accounts. LDA has signed on with 80 other national organizations to support preserving SSI for low-income children with disabilities. More…

In a letter following the briefing, organizations wrote to Committee Chairman Geoff Davis (R-KY) and Ranking Member Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), stating: “We are heartened that the hearing focused on strengthening SSI to ensure the best possible outcomes for children and youth with severe disabilities.”

Studies consistently have shown that low-income families raising children with severe disabilities experience significant financial hardship. The SSI cash benefit, along with Medicaid coverage, enables families to access services necessary for children to remain with their families in their community. On average, the monthly benefit is only $579. However, despite the small amount, this money can be critical to helping offset the expenses of raising a child with a severe disability. Families use these funds for out-of-pocket medical costs, specialized daycare, and to replace lost income when a parent may have to stop working or work fewer hours in order to care for the child.

Less than ten percent of children with disabilities receive SSI. SSI’s extraordinarily strict eligibility criteria restrict benefits to low-income children with the most severe physical and/or mental impairments. Only 39 percent of those who apply receive benefitsa figure that has remained stable for over ten years.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) currently is working on a report in response to a Boston Globe report that the program is being misused. At the Ways and Means hearing, GAO investigators told committee members their preliminary findings show the number of children receiving SSI benefits due to disabilities like autism and ADHD is on the rise. At the same time, periodic case reviews to verify continued eligibility for the program are less common. The national groups supporting SSI have asked the committee to await the full report, due out in April, and base any policy changes on facts, rather than anecdotal information.

The organizations also support improving SSI’s work incentives, in particular expansion of the Student Earned Income Exclusion (SEIE) and the provision of benefits counseling by the Social Security Administration. In addition, they are supporting early and improved access to vocational rehabilitation for SSI youth under age 18 to ensure young adults are prepared to enter the workforce.

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States Apply for Early Learning Challenge Grants

Thirty-five states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have applied for the new Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) grants. Grants of between $50 million and $100 million will be awarded to the winning states by December 31, with a total of $500 million available for the program. RTT-ELC grants will support states’ efforts to increase the number of low-income and disadvantaged children enrolled in high-quality early learning programs, design and implement integrated early learning systems, and ensure any assessments used conform with the National Research Council recommendations. More….

RTT-ELC is administered jointly by the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. To ensure adequate oversight, the U.S. Department of Education is proposing to establish an Office of Early Learning. Jacqueline Jones, currently Senior Advisor for Early Learning at the Department, would head the new office, which would be housed in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. In addition to overseeing the RTT-ELC, the Office of Early Learning would become a central resource in coordinating other early learning programs within the Department of Education and across other federal agencies.

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