Bicameral Conference Group Approves ESEA Compromise
Posted on 12/03/2015
In two days of short meetings punctuated by votes in the House and Senate, a bipartisan group of conferees agreed on a framework for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Despite months of delays in both chambers, the conference committee moved quickly – meetings began the same day conferees were appointed in the Senate, and only 11 members offered amendments. The framework, dubbed the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” was approved by all but one of the 40 conferees, with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) as the only “no” vote.
Conferees did not debate specific legislative language – instead, they simply voted to approve this proposed framework for reconciling the separate House and Senate reauthorization proposals (H.R. 5 and S. 1177, respectively). That framework will be fleshed out and adjusted by staff before the final legislative language is released publicly. That compromise framework gives States significantly more freedom to set standards, design and implement interventions, and overall to tailor federal education programs to their needs. The federal government will maintain “strong federal guardrails” – a phrase used multiple times by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) in the discussion – to ensure accountability for all students.
Under the proposed framework, States would still have to test students in English and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school and disaggregate scores by student subgroup. States would be required to identify and intervene in the bottom 5% of schools, those with the biggest achievement gaps, and those with high school graduation rates lower than 67%. The Adequate Yearly Progress requirement would be eliminated, and instead States would be responsible for designing their own accountability and intervention systems within those parameters. While the separate School Improvement Grant program and requirements for Supplemental Education Services would reportedly be eliminated, States would be able to set aside up to 7% of Title I funds to help with interventions.
Many of the programs contained in the current Title IV would reportedly be consolidated into a flexible funding pool under this framework (notable exceptions include the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant, which would live on as a separate program). There will also be a pilot early childhood program, similar to the current Preschool Development Grant. And Title III programs for English Language Learners will also be maintained as a separate budget item.
The conference framework does not include a Title I portability provision – part of the bill approved in the House which would have allowed States to set up systems where Title I funds could follow students to the public schools of their choice. But it does include a new pilot which would allow up to 50 districts to combine State, local, and federal funds into a weighted student funding formula.
Finally, the framework would significantly limit the authority of the Secretary of Education. The Secretary could not mandate or incentivize any particular set of standards, and would be obligated to grant many more of the waivers proposed by States, without requiring policy changes in return.
Among the amendments approved in the framework was a proposal from Representative Glenn Thompson (R-PA) that the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) study the current Title I formula to try and identify more equitable alternatives. Both Thompson and Senate Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) recognized that the formula is a controversial issue – Alexander called it an “explosive subject” – but said that perhaps they could make better decisions about whether and how that formula should be adjusted if they had better information. This amendment was widely supported except by a few – including Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), who had tried to adjust the formula to benefit rural districts earlier in the reauthorization debate. Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY) received approval for an amendment that would study current early learning programs to identify overlaps and inefficiencies – an attempt to placate some members who asserted that new early education programs should not be added until current programs are shown to be effective.
Only two amendments were rejected by the conferees – one from Congresswoman Susan Davis (D-CA) which would have created a national clearinghouse for teacher evaluation programs, and another from Congressman Glenn Grothman (R-WI) which would have capped authorized appropriations at current fiscal year (FY) 2016 levels. Alexander responded to Grothman that he felt appropriators were better positioned to make decisions about spending than the conferees, and asserted that it was “runaway” spending on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare that has created problems in the federal budget.
While many of the members agreed that this was not the bill they would have drafted on their own, all agreed it was a good compromise and an important step toward long-overdue changes. “I’ll take 80% of what I want and save the other 20% for another day,” Alexander said of the framework.
Conference members said they expect the full legislative text to be released by November 30th. The House of Representatives will tentatively vote on the bill December 2nd or 3rd, with Senate action anticipated the following week. But the speed of the conference does not necessarily mean that it will be smooth sailing for the bill in the full House and Senate. Conservative groups and others have expressed their displeasure with the framework, saying that the final bill will not go far enough to scale back the federal role in education. And Democrats voiced concern over the proposed consolidation or elimination of nearly 50 smaller programs. Wrangling enough votes to gain approval – especially in the House – will still be a difficult task. And with a full legislative calendar in the days leading up to the holidays, Senate approval could depend entirely on the speed at which other legislation is considered.
Alyson Klein, “House, Senate ESEA Compromise Sails Through Conference Committee,” Education Week: Politics K-12, November 19, 2015.