Congress OKs Less Federal Education Involvement

 

American schools will feel less federal intervention once the president signs a bill headed his way.

Supporters of a measure the U.S. Senate passed 85-12 Wednesday, sending it to President Barack Obama, say that when it becomes law pressure Washington has put on local schools will ease and school leaders will have more say in what happens in classrooms.

“There’s nothing more important to our kids’ futures — and our country’s economic future — than providing them with a good education,” said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., adding that the measure known as Every Student Succeeds Act will feed education success.

The measure removes some U.S. Education Department authority. States would determine how to hold schools accountable rather than rely on a federally imposed sanction system that penalizes schools based on students’ standardized test results.

“Among the biggest victories in this bill is ensuring that states have more flexibility,” said Franken, a member of the Senate education committee. “The one-size-fits-all approach to fixing failing schools wasn’t working, and this bill will help address that.”

The bill, which Obama is expected to sign, overturns the controversial 13-year-old No Child Left Behind law.

Some provisions in the bill especially affect the Upper Midwest, particularly provisions for American Indian Country.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., authored a provision that requires the education secretary to work with the interior secretary and others on Indian issues.

One of the most important issues, Thune said, is planning a federal response to the high number of Indian student suicides.

“I have made it a priority to do as much as I can to help address the tribal youth suicide crisis in South Dakota’s Indian country,” Thune said. “Losing a friend or family member to suicide is a tragedy, and while there are numerous known factors that contribute to suicide — particularly youth suicide — we can and should do more to understand the problem and find constructive ways to prevent it from happening in the first place.”

Thune’s efforts also are aimed at reducing school violence in Indian areas.

Franken succeeded in establishing grants for American Indian language immersion programs.

The bill included support for programs to strengthen the role of tribes to better meet the needs of Indian students. It also included a policy to improve coordination among tribes and states and to help retain good teachers in schools on Indian land.

Also, the bill includes provisions to allow rural school districts to work together to better compete for scarce federal funding also sought by big urban districts.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. trumpeted provisions for rural school districts, such as updates to the Impact Aid program that is used to help fund school construction and provide basic education support to schools on or near federal land or military bases, mostly a rural issue. In most areas, schools rely on property taxes for revenue and government lands do not produce those taxes.

Franken said that when he visits rural Minnesota, he hears that under the law for the past 13 years, some schools were required to replace teachers and principals to improve overall performance. “So two schools would just exchange teachers and principals.”

While the bill reduces standardized tests requirements, it still mandates them for grades 3 to 8 and once in high school. However, schools will have more freedom to decide how to use test scores to improve student performance.

The measure limits how much time students may spend taking standardized tests.

The bill prohibits the federal education secretary from dictating national education policy, including requiring adoption of the controversial common core teaching standards that critics say confuse students. The secretary cannot force requirements on schools if they are not in law, such as mandating teacher evaluations.

South Dakota senators praised options that the bill provides educators.

“Educators in our state will have greater flexibility to develop their own curriculum that best fits the needs of South Dakota’s youth,” Republican Sen. Mike Rounds said. “Overhaul of our education system has been long overdue. The shortcomings of No Child Left Behind — which expired seven years ago and has been reauthorized for short-term, temporary, unworkable fixes only — were evident while I was working as governor.”

Rounds praised bill authors for providing funds to 39 of the state’s school districts that lose tax money because federal lands within their boundaries produce no property taxes. He also said grants to help Indian academic achievement will help South Dakotans.

Thune concentrated on tribal youth suicide. He sent a letter to House-Senate conferees last month as they wrapped up the education bill. He asked that the suicide provisions be included, which he called important

“Congress recognizes this importance, which is why I was glad to see such strong, bipartisan support for these measures,” Thune said.

Federal Cabinet secretaries will be required to work together on several topics, including federal resources available to prevent suicides, eliminating barriers for federal officials providing suicide prevention assistance and working with tribes.

A related Thune provision would provide more money to schools dealing with gang violence and suicide outbreaks.

Both Wisconsin senators, a Democrat and a Republican, praised the bipartisan nature of the bill.

“We put politics aside in order to fulfill the 50-year-old promise of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that says that every child, no matter what circumstances they are born into in this great country, has the opportunity to achieve,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat and education committee member.

Added Republican Sen. Ron Johnson: “This bill is a strong bipartisan effort to devolve power away from Washington and toward states, communities and the teachers and parents who are at the front line of education. … It is a prime example of achieving a successful result by concentrating on areas of agreement, an approach I fully support and practice.”

“The replacement of the well-intentioned but badly flawed No Child Left Behind Act, with its one-size-fits-all system of sanctions that erroneously put our nation on a path toward labelling all public schools as ‘failing,’ with the new, more flexible Every Student Succeeds Act is long overdue,” said Dan Rossmiller of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

“We know that to inspire students’ natural curiosity, imagination and love of learning we need an education system that closes opportunity and resource gaps by providing the support, tools, and time to learn that every student deserves,” added Betsy Kippers of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

Baldwin authored a provision that turned into a grant program designed to help streamline standardized tests. The bill also includes Baldwin’s idea of providing money to use technology to help improve student career and college preparation.

The chairman of the House education committee, from Minnesota, called the existing law flawed and failed.

“Parents, teachers and state and local school leaders support this bill because they know it will restore local control and help get Washington out of our classrooms,” Chairman John Kline, a Republican, said after the House passed the bill last week.

A Franken provision is folded into the bill to allow computerized tests that the senator said will give teachers and parents quicker and more accurate information on student progress. It “will go a long way toward improving the quality of assessments used in our schools,” he said.

Franken said that the bill enables schools to work with community mental health providers. Rural areas struggle to provide mental health services and the senator said that allowing schools and other organizations to work together should help bridge the gap.

Another provision could help increase the number of counselors in schools, Franken said. Minnesota is among the states with the lowest number of counselors for students.

The senator predicted that many schools will establish language immersion programs under part the bill that he wrote. He called lack of knowledge of a student’s tribal language is an aspect of “cultural trauma.” “Kids do better if they have a sense of their identity and their culture.”

The bill is not perfect, Franken said. He expressed to his colleagues in a speech “my deep disappointment” that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students did not receive protection against bullying and discrimination. “I’m going to keep fighting to get this critical measure passed into law because it is our responsibility as adults to protect children.”

In North Dakota, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler praised the education bill for returning authority to states and local school communities.

“We can now once again shape our school systems in North Dakota based on what we value and what we know is important for our students in our state,” she said.

In light of the change, the Department of Public Instruction will shorten the state assessments for English and math next spring by cutting a classroom activity piece that had little effect on overall test scores, Baesler said, adding it should shorten the test by up to 90 minutes.

Between now and the 2017-18 school year, Baesler said she will assemble a group of K-12 stakeholders to write an accountability plan for education as required by the new law.

Baesler said that while the Adequate Yearly Progress measurements under No Child Left Behind gauged school quality on annual test scores and graduation rates, the new state plan could consider other factors such as the number of fine arts and advanced placement courses offered and professional development for teachers.

“Once we determine what we want to measure, we will also be able to determine what

needs to be done to help our lowest-performing schools,” she said.

Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, a public employees union with about 8,000 teachers, said the new law “will empower teachers to be even more creative and bold in their lessons because they can teach to standards and not to standardized tests.”

The executive director of the North Dakota School Boards Association said the current law’s “adequate yearly progress” measurement set a “statistically impossible goal” of having all students proficient in reading and math.

“It gave the public a false impression that our schools are failing, and good schools were labeled in need of improvement, and those days are gone,” he said.

Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota praised the bill’s support for science, technology, engineering and math education, subjects needed to keep students competitive.

High-poverty rural schools that usually have received less federal funding than in more populated areas should see more federal funds under the law, Hoeven added.

Heitkamp said her provisions help give educators a better chance to combat human trafficking and prevent suicide.

The human trafficking language ensures that teachers get training they need on the subject, so they can help prevent trafficking in schools.

“Children in tribal communities and rural towns across North Dakota have limitless potential — they simply need the right tools, resources and protections to achieve,” Heitkamp said about accomplishments in the bill.

Forum News Service reporter Mike Nowatzki contributed to this story.