For sure, there is a lot for Democrats to dislike about the current version of No Child Left Behind federal education legislation steaming toward approval in the House of Representatives. The bill, The Student Success Act (H.R. 5), was written completely by Republicans, passed through committee without any Democratic support, and has already drawn strong opposition from the Obama administration and others.
But with Republicans firmly in charge of efforts to rewrite NCLB, it’s important to identify specifics in the bill that should become bright lines Democrats can’t cross and points for inclusion to fight for in Senate negotiations and joint deliberations.
At the top of the list of what Democrats oppose in the Student Success Act is the insistence among Republicans that federal money for public schools be further constricted.
While a number of state governors and prominent voices on Capitol Hill have come to the realization that levels of spending on education need to increase substantially, the bill from the Republican-controlled House would ensure long-term cuts. Quick to criticize this, President Obama was quoted in Beltway news outlet The Hill saying the Republican bill would “lock in cuts to schools for the rest of this decade.” A White House report elaborated, explaining how the bill would cement education cuts demanded by the 2013 sequester and ensure federal education funding will be lower in 2021 than it was in 2012.
At The Huffington Post, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten voiced similar criticism that the Republican bill would “lock in recession-driven cuts to education. It would allow state and local governments to walk away from their responsibility to maintain funding from year to year.”
And as Valerie Strauss reported on her blog at The Washington Post, 115 education groups contend the funding levels proposed in the House bill “are inadequate to properly support K-12 public education.” In a letter to congressional leaders, these organizations argue the bill “locks in over $1.7 billion in education cuts” at a time when “public school enrollment will increase by more than 2.2 million students.”
There is definitive research that spending at sufficient levels is really important if we want “student success,” as the Republican bill purports to legislate. And the federal government has a very important role to play in providing this funding, especially because most states are currently reliant on federal money to help them maintain education funding from year to year.
What’s also galvanizing Democratic Party opposition to H.R. 5 is the bill’s complete neglect of funding for preschool education. Education Week reporter Alyson Klein reported Education Secretary Arne Duncan opposes the legislation, in part, because it “doesn’t create any sort of new investment in early childhood education,” an area where Duncan and House Democrats have been saying they’d like to see significant new investments.
Democrats mostly agree with a coalition of education professionals and advocacy groups that has “urged lawmakers to consider adding dedicated funding for preschool in the bill” according to Allie Bidwell at U.S. News & World Report. These advocates argue, “Any legislation should create a dedicated funding stream for states to receive targeted federal dollars to expand early learning and child care programs in schools with high concentrations of low-income students.”
Federal support for preschool education would come at a time when more states are also seeing the need to increase funding for these programs. As District Administration magazine reports, “For the third year in a row, both Republican and Democratic policymakers are making significant investments in state-funded preschool programs.”
The article found a 12 percent increase in state investment over fiscal year 2013-14. Yet, increased spending levels for preschool are not universal, as many states still struggle to afford these initiatives.
Research continues to show that spending more money on education programs for three- and four-year-olds produces strong gains in education achievement and other measurements later in life. So any legislation coming out of Washington that would blunt the upward momentum in pre-K funding would be a step back.
What’s worse, H.R. 5 would also eliminate progressive elements in the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act dating back to the presidential administration of Lyndon B. Johnson.
Specifically, it would discontinue federal enforcement of states’ “maintenance of effort” in public education funding. The term maintenance of effort refers to the requirement that state and local funding levels remain relatively constant from year to year; otherwise they lose eligibility to receive federal grant support.
An analysis from the National Education Association explains, eliminating maintenance of effort “will trigger a race to the bottom in state and local support for education as federal dollars would be reduced to backfilling holes in state and local support … Removing MOE requirements also undercuts the effectiveness of the ‘supplement, not supplant requirements'” that ensure states don’t substitute federal money for their own responsibility to educate children.
“Currently, the MOE requires districts to spend at least 90 percent of the state and local money they spent in the prior year, yet districts may reduce their spending by up to 10 percent without penalty, which provides sufficient flexibility already.”
The other terrible idea in the House bill is to enact “Title I portability.” Title I of the original ESEA ensures federal dollars create more funding equity in education by targeting money to schools and districts with the highest concentrations of low-income students. What the Republicans are now proposing is that Title I money would “follow the child” when parents opt out of a Title I designated public school to attend a wealthier school or a charter school.
As Politico reports, Secretary Duncan maintains allowing Title I dollars to follow the child would cause the money to flow out of high-need districts. A report from his department contends, “The 100 largest school districts in the country serving high concentrations of black students could lose $1.3 billion. For districts serving many Hispanic students, the loss could total $1.8 billion. Detroit City Schools stands to lose $265 million and Los Angeles Unified School District could lose $782 million.”
Rural schools will be harmed as well, as Jackie Mader explains at The Hechinger Report. “In Mississippi, where more than 56 percent of students attend rural schools, Title I funding could be cut by $7 million, with the largest cuts taking place in five high-poverty Mississippi Delta districts.”
A report from the Center for American Progress called Title I portability “Robin Hood in reverse,” stating, “school districts with a poverty rate of more than 30 percent would lose money, while districts with a poverty rate of under 15 percent would see dramatic increases in funding.”
Title I portability is also flat-out unworkable. States opting into it would turn the budgeting process in the most struggling schools into a guessing game. It would also rob these schools of their economies of scale. When a school would lose a percentage of students in a particular grade level or across grade levels, the school would not be able to cut its teaching staff proportionally, as that would leave the remaining students underserved. So what would have to happen instead would be to cut a support service – such as a reading specialist or a special education teacher – to offset the loss of funding. This would damage the effectiveness of the school long term and cause it to slide further into the ranks of “low performing.”
Title I portability is also an especially important point of opposition because some Democrats have adopted conservative talking points that “letting the money follow the child” and allowing “parents to vote with their feet” are stands-ins for sound fiscal policy and regulation that would enforce equity and quality.
Proposals like Title I portability are the logical outcome of any argument that would base education policy on a market-based ethic rather than basic guarantees of quality and equity. That position is a slippery slope to privatization. As The Washington Post’s Emma Brown explains, “Many Democrats see it as a first step toward federal vouchers that would allow students to use federal funding for private school enrollment.”
There are certainly other things to dislike about H.R. 5. Promoters of the bill contend it provides states with more flexibility, but then it includes the absurd condition that use of federal funding for reduced class sizes (Title II) be limited to 10 percent.
The bill lifts the outmoded and damaging federal enforcement of Adequate Yearly Progress that has unfairly labeled struggling schools as “failures,” yet it leaves in place much of the strict testing requirements that are broadly opposed by parents and teachers. And the bill allocates more money for charter schools but provides no new conditions or requirements for what has now become a wildly unregulated and corrupt sector.
The Network for Public Education, a public education advocacy founded by parents, teachers, and education scholars, has provided an online tool to support people wanting to write their congressional representatives and tell them to vote no on the bill.
Should the bill pass, as is predicted, Democrats then must continue to insist that any revision of No Child Left Behind must ensure equity and quality rather than austerity and further privatization.