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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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The GOP Proposal for Extreme School-Funding Flexibility

Published:  August 18, 2011

States and local school districts have long called for more flexibility in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), whose latest rendition is No Child Left Behind. Last month the House Education and the Workforce Committee proposed a solution by advancing the “State and Local Funding Flexibility Act.”

Under the House Republican proposal, some funds affecting early childhood learning would become more pliable, including those currently intended to be spent exclusively on disadvantaged children (Title I, Part A). Districts would be able to redirect those dollars, as well as funds from the Education Jobs Fund, School Improvement Grants, and English Language Acquisition grants. (Per the bill, states and school districts would not be allowed to take funding from IDEA, intended for disabled students, and move it to other programs, but they could increase funding for IDEA Early Intervention Services with funding from School Improvement Grants, for example.)

Supporters of the flexibility bill, introduced by the committee’s chairman, Rep. John Kline (R-MN), say the proposal would help states and school districts use federal money effectively, by allowing them to choose programs they deem most likely to improve student achievement.

But while members of Congress on both sides of the aisle – as well as key officials in the Obama administration and education stakeholders – agree that more flexibility in ESEA is needed, many think this bill takes the concept too far, and would only exacerbate funding inequality within and among school districts.

“Let’s be clear about what this bill does: it takes away services from poor and minority and other underserved children because it allows school districts to no longer be required to spend money on those children,” said Rep. George Miller (D-CA), ranking member on the committee, in a press release.

Under the Republican bill, states could repurpose money from after school programs funded by 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants to fund the creation of new state assessments or projects that improve math and science education through partnerships with businesses. Or districts could use funds currently designated for low-income children to fund technological innovation or programs for rural students.

The bill also allows states and school districts to take money from the Education Jobs Fund and use it for purposes other than saving or creating education jobs. These funds were made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and can be used through September 30, 2012.

In a statement, Kline insisted that states and school districts wouldn’t have carte blanche to use federal dollars without any accountability, because the new legislation maintains the monitoring and reporting requirements of ESEA.

Advocacy groups had harsh words for the Education and the Workforce Committee about this bill. The National Council of La Raza said, “The State and Local Flexibility Act would allow states and school districts to combine funding from different sections of ESEA to address needs they deem to be most pressing. While this deference to state and local control may be politically popular, it imperils the education of Hispanic and ELL students, who have experienced decades of educational neglect at the hands of state and local education officials.”

The Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the country’s largest urban school districts, has called for more flexibility in ESEA that would allow districts to use federal funds on target programming for at-risk students, rather than on more comprehensive interventions like the mandated tutoring services for schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) on standardized tests. The Council made clear that the new proposal, however, doesn’t actually address the flexibility needs of most urban districts. “This flexibility bill does not effectively address, and in fact appears to maintain, some of the most inflexible and unproductive mandates in ESEA,” the group said in a statement.  

If this controversial bill were to pass the full House and move to the Democratic-controlled Senate, it would be quashed. But the proposal does provide a window into the future ESEA reauthorization battle. The State and Local Funding Flexibility Act is one of three bills the Committee on Education and the Workforce has introduced in a piecemeal approach to reauthorization. Two more are planned according to EdWeek’s Alyson Klein: one on teachers and another on accountability.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, wants a comprehensive ESEA Reauthorization bill. When, though, is the big question. It’s looking less and less likely that it will be 2011.

Recently, Harkin acknowledged that he has not been able to stick to his self-imposed deadlines on an ESEA mark-up; those deadlines have slowly been sliding from early spring to late spring to sometime this year. And according to EdWeek’s Politics K-12, in late July he declined to give a more specific date.

Stay tuned for more coverage on ESEA reauthorization.

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