Senator Warren Clarifies The Money Matter In Revising NCLB

Jeff Bryant

Where can Democrats find clarity in the current debate over how to rewrite No Child Left Behind legislation?

For sure, we appear to be in the midst of is an education policy turmoil where instead of right and left “meeting in the middle,” what we see instead are forces on the right and left coming together to oppose what a bipartisan coalition helped create.

Take, for instance, state adoptions of the new Common Core Standards: For years, support for the new national standards was presented as a unifying front, with the Obama administration and numerous Democratic governors joining with prominent Republicans leaders from across the country.

But opposition to the new standards from the right-wing of the political spectrum is now famous. Republican lawmakers across the nation – from Louisiana to Indiana, North Carolina to Wisconsin – have led prominent advocacy and legislative campaigns either to overturn adoption of the standards, to revise the standards so they no longer reflect national guidelines, or to reject the standardized tests that were meant to accompany the Common Core

What’s less known but equally influential, is Common Core opposition coming from Democrats too. Last year, U.S. News and World Report reported, “The push against Common Core is coming from both sides of the political aisle.” The reporter noted, “Liberals fear the curriculum, and the standardized evaluations, will amplify the high-pressure, high-stakes atmosphere that No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s education initiative, helped create.”

More recently, The Seattle Times reported a key governing body of the Washington State Democratic Party “voted to condemn” the Common Core, and criticized the federal government for pressuring states “into adopting the Common Core by making the standards a requirement for states or districts that wanted to win one of the big grants that the department gave out under its Race to the Top initiative.”

So, it’s confusing out there in education policy land. But whenever things get confusing in a political debate, it’s important to remember the one thing that always seems to be at the heart of the dispute: money.

Now, wading into the turbulent waters comes a debate on how to revise No Child Left Behind. The 2001 legislation was last a matter of serious scrutiny seven years ago, and no parties involved could come to complete agreement on what to do.

While the debate over NCLB revision entails lots of issues – including standardized testing, school services for a broad range of students, and supports for principals and teachers – make no mistake, that a big part of the debate is about the money.

The federal government spends nearly $79 billion annually on primary and secondary education programs, and state governments eagerly want to get their hands on that money.

What’s a Democrat to think?

It’s The Support, Stupid

The great NCLB debate kicked off most prominently in the Senate where the committee with responsibility for crafting most education-related legislation has met to deliberate on rewriting the bill.

Last week’s hearing presented a confusing scene with Democratic Senators supporting, mostly, the needs for federally mandated annual testing of every student – despite advice they were getting from public school educators (traditionally a left-leaning constituency) in attendance – while Republicans seemed mostly to disagree with school administrators and policy wonks who wanted educators to continue to perform the annual assessments. Confusion reigned.

The topic for this week’s Senate hearing was “Supporting Teachers and School Leaders,” and almost right away the conversation veered toward issues that weren’t, well, very supportive. Instead, Senators, and at least two of the people providing testimony, mostly wanted to discuss teacher evaluation and the role of the federal government in directing states in their efforts to manage the teacher workforce.

In his opening remarks, Committee Chair Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee stated, “Today’s hearing is all about better teaching – how we can create an environment so teachers, principals, and other leaders can succeed,” but then he quickly transitioned to touting his record for constructing huge processes to evaluate them.

How an evaluation process is supposed to create a better “environment” for teachers was never really clarified by the Senator, but he regaled the audience about his “brawl with the National Education Association” and Tennessee’s “work on measuring growth in student achievement” and “teacher effectiveness” – a relationship that is now very much disputed in the research.

Democratic Senator Party Murray from Washington, to her credit, opened with remarks that connected the matter of “support” to what sounds genuinely supportive, saying, “I believe we need to invest more in teachers and pay them enough to continue to attract the best and brightest to the profession … Unfortunately, I hear all the time from teachers – three-quarters of whom are women – who feel like they aren’t getting the resources they need.”

But testimony from Terry Holliday, Commissioner of Education, Commonwealth of Kentucky, continued the misdirection. In describing his state’s “teacher effectiveness system,” and the federal government’s “role in evaluation systems,” his main point was, “We as state leaders in education, do not need the review or approval from the U.S. Department of Education.”

Holiday’s testimony dovetailed nicely with the message Republican Senators on the committee returned to again and again, that while it’s okay for the federal government to send states money in the name of “supporting teachers,” the feds should keep their hands-off the ways state officials choose to spend it.

Money For What?

The hands-off message came out especially strong in remarks by North Carolina Senator Richard Burr.

Burr laid down the argument Congressional Republicans seem intent on making, that states should be able to spend federal dollars any way they want. He pointed to a charter school in his home state – part of the KIPP charter chain that is, in Burr’s words, “the biggest utilizer of Teach For America” temporary teachers – as an example of a school that is “doing things differently” and supposedly has more positive “expectations” than what is held for local public schools. “I don’t know what it is,” Burr said of the KIPP School. “But it’s something, and we don’t tie their hands for how they use their money.”

His remark prompted the public school principal who provided testimony to the hearing, Christine Handy-Collins from Gaithersburg High School, Gaithersburg, Maryland, to counter that what her school needed, rather than a blank check, was funding from the federal government that should be “dedicated money for professional development.” Burr cut her off, insisting that “getting this right” is about “taking the shackles off” and saying to education systems around the country, “create whatever works for you.”

That’s when the microphone passed to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren who said, “I’m just going to pick up where Senator Burr left off.”

She did much more than just “pick up.” (Watch here at the 1:29:00 mark.)

What Warren Said

Warren asked the principal who Burr had so rudely cut off, “Do you see anything in the Republican draft proposal that requires that a single dollar in federal aid be used to improve teaching?”

After the principal explained there was a “list of allowable uses,” Warren continued, “I understand there is a list, but nothing that requires that any of it be spent on teachers.”

“As I read the Republican draft proposal,” Warren continued, “states and districts would no longer be required to invest Title II funds [the section of NCLB defining how federal money can be used for teachers] into teachers and leaders. Maybe it will happen sometimes, but nothing in this draft requires the state to spend a single tax dollar on strengthening teachers … Giving billions of dollars in federal aid to states without requiring them to spend a dime on helping our teachers is not a responsible use of our federal tax dollars.”

Pivoting to her next point, Warren noted, “For the first time poor children will be the majority of public school children in America. The law that became No Child Left Behind was originally enacted back in the 1960s as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. And we have to ask ourselves how can we make this law a more powerful weapon against poverty.”

She asked a first grade teacher Rachelle Moore, from Seattle, who had also provided testimony to the Senate committee, “Do you have all the resources you need to combat the effects of poverty in the school where you work, and if not, what are the resources and support that would help you in your work.”

Moore replied, “No, I don’t believe I have all the support that I need.” Moore described how her school deals with “a lot of students who are dealing with the effects of trauma, whether that be domestic violence and abuse, homelessness, poverty.”

Yet despite the clear needs to have some extra support to, in her words, “take into consideration all those other things beyond just the academic piece.,” funding for the school nurse “has gone down each year, and we have to rely on outside funds such as our [Parent Teacher Student Association] to provide for days for her to be at the school. Without the nurse, without the healthy snack programs and things like that, I’m not sure that my students would be coming to the classroom feeling that they were ready to learn.”

Then Warren asked Moore, “Are you confident that without any guidance or any accountability in the federal statute that every state will target federal funds to the classrooms of the students who need those additional resources the most?”

“Without hearing teacher voices, I would worry that we wouldn’t know what needs we have, so without really getting into the classrooms and figuring out what their students in order to be successful in the classroom then I’m not sure we would know what they need.”

“There’s a lot going outside the classroom in the lives of our vulnerable children, Warren concluded, “and we need to make sure children have access to the full range of services that they need to learn and to succeed. This means school nurses and counselors and making sure that our kids can see the board in class – that they aren’t hungry, that they have the health care they need. Education is about building opportunity and it is about making sure that federal dollars go the kids who most need to help to have a chance to succeed.”

There’s ample evidence we can’t trust states to do that.

Where The Money Goes

For the past three years, a national report card has rated states on how they provide for equitable funding to schools ensure they provide more money to schools who need it the most. The report card “examines each state’s level of commitment to equal educational opportunity, regardless of a student’s background, family income, or where she or he attends school.”

The most recent version found “The majority of states have flat or regressive funding distribution patterns that ignore the need for additional funding in high poverty settings. Even among ‘progressive’ states, only eight provide more than a 10 percent boost to high poverty districts. In the five most regressive states (North Dakota, Vermont, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Nevada), the poorest districts receive at least 20 percent less funding than higher wealth districts.”

Noted David Sciarra, Education Law Center Executive Director, who co-authored the study, “These latest results show school finance in most states is decidedly unfair, a condition which deprives equal educational opportunity to millions of public school children across the nation.”

The study, noted another co-author Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights in Washington, D.C., confirmed, “states across the country are failing to adequately and equitably invest in children.”

It’s important to understand a “we can’t trust the states” position is not just a reference to historic racial discrimination against black school children in the South, nor is it about Democratic officials in the federal government imposing policy onto states run by Republican government officials.

Numerous Democratic governors have shown us that state lawmakers who profess to align with the left on many issues also can shirk their responsibly to poor school children and their families. It’s just too easy for them to do this.

A noticeable example of Democrats acting against the interests of low-income black and brown school children is New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo.

According to a recent study reported in The New York Daily News, “Funding inequalities between rich, poor school districts reached record levels under Cuomo. Overall, schools in poorer districts spent $8,733 per pupil less in 2012 than those from wealthier ones, an inequity that grew by nearly 9 percent from before Cuomo took office in 2011.”

So we know, state leaders of all political stripe can, and often do, lose their way and allow local forces to channel resources to the interests of the powerful and more well-to-do. That’s why Democratic office holders at the federal level have to be enforcers for how federal money should be used to uphold opportunity to the nation’s most vulnerable children and the teachers charged with providing that opportunity.

This is not to say we need to maintain the status quo. Certainly, what we have in the current form of No Child Left Behind, and the federal waivers to that law provided by the Obama administration, is not working for poor kids.

What’s sorely needed in the revision of the federal statues is to put the emphasis back on its original intent to spend money where it’s needed most. Senator Warren has provided a powerful corrective message that Democrats everywhere should heed.

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