Early Ed Watch

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Senate Bill Proposes Changes to ESEA, With a Few for Early Ed

Published:  October 11, 2011

Today, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee, released a draft of a comprehensive bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind.

While the bill does not include a new Title within ESEA that focuses directly on early learning as some advocates have argued for, there are several pieces of the legislation that apply to early educators from pre-kindergarten through the early grades of elementary school.

“We have more [about early learning] in this bill than we’ve ever had before in an ESEA bill,” Harkin said in a press call today. He added that he wished it could have included more: “I think we’re missing the boat by not putting more funds in early learning but these were compromises we had to make,” he said.

Unfortunately none of the new early learning provisions appear robust and explicit enough to ensure a high-quality aligned and seamless educational experience for children from pre-kindergarten through third grade. Other problems may arise as well, as education analysts pore over the bill’s contents. For example, several groups dedicated to reducing achievement gaps for disadvantaged children, including the Children’s Defense Fund and Education Trust, are already protesting what they see as the bill’s inability to ensure an equitable and effective education for poor and minority children in states that fail to take that responsibility seriously.   

Here’s a quick overview of some of the significant changes this bill would make:

·       Eliminate “adequate yearly progress” requirements and instead require states to develop their own statewide accountability systems that include publicizing information about student performance by schools and subgroups of students;

·       Require states to set college- and career-ready standards;

·       Keep testing requirements in place, but allow states to either use a single summative assessments or multiple interim assessments during the year to show student growth;

·       Require states to create teacher and principal evaluation systems based on “multiple measures,” including student achievement data and classroom observations.

·       Ensure that Title I schools (schools serving a high proportion of low-income children) are receiving an equitable share of state and local dollars. (For more, see today’s post from our sister blog, Ed Money Watch)

The bill, from what we have read so far, continues to allow districts to use Title I dollars to pay for programs for children starting at birth.  It is also sprinkled with a few other early learning provisions. It would allow school districts to use professional development dollars to support early learning. The section of the bill related to professional development for teachers and principals -- Title II, Part A -- says that local education agencies shall use funds to increase student achievement for all students by increasing the number and percentage high-quality teachers and principals. Districts may do this in a number of ways, but two of the options include developing and implementing professional development, which may include joint professional development with early learning program staff and reducing class size for pre-K through third grade classrooms.

The proposed ESEA would also codify Obama Administration programs like Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation and Promise Neighborhoods.

Race to the Top would be housed under the section about “promoting innovation” -- Title V --and include a priority for improving school readiness through strategies that are similar to those in the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2011, the law that established the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge. The “improving school readiness” goal is one of seven priorities the Secretary of Education could choose from for the Race to the Top competition each year.

Investing in Innovation (also under Title V) would also be required to include early learning as a priority. Specifically, the proposed priority would be to “improve school readiness and strengthen collaboration and coordination among elementary schools and early childhood care and education.”

Promise Neighborhoods would be housed under Title IV, Supporting Successful, Well-rounded Students. This program focuses on improving children’s outcomes cradle to career and has a significant early childhood component.

In addition, the proposal borrows from Duncan’s No Child Left Behind waiver plan, allowing more flexibility in the use of 21st Century Community Learning Centers funds. School districts would be able to choose to use funds to extend the school day, week or year to serve students with the greatest academic needs or to reconfigure a school’s schedule by adding at least 300 additional hours for expanded learning opportunities. This could mean that schools could use funds to extend half-day kindergarten to full-day K or maybe even to extend public pre-K programs operating within a school.

There are still many questions to answer and more than 800 pages to pore over to get a better idea of how the changes could affect the early childhood programs and the early grades of elementary school. So stay tuned!

ESEA reauthorization is four years overdue and many of the provisions included in the latest iteration led to unintended consequences that hurt schools and the students attending them. Last month, the Obama Administration released a plan to provide states regulatory flexibility in exchange for the adoption of certain reforms. In a press conference, President Obama said “Congress hasn’t been able to do it, so I will.” Most states have already made it known that they intend to apply for a waiver.

But now, the Senate has made clear its intentions to act, and Sen. Harkin is hopeful that Congress can pass a bill before the first round of waivers go into effect in January. We think that’s a long shot, in part because of where things stand in the other chamber of Congress: the House.  The education committee in the House began taking up ESEA reauthorization over the summer, making adjustments to ESEA through a series of five bills instead of a single comprehensive bill as the Senate has done. And while there a few common areas, there are also significant differences between the House’s bills and the Harkin bill. It’s uncertain whether common ground will be found anytime soon.

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