Student Success Act Passes

by: Justin Pye

The House of Representatives passed the Student Success Act, an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), on Friday.

The House bill, which was crafted by House Education and Workforce Committee Chair John Kline (R-Minn.) and received no votes from Democrats, would put states in control of most federal education money, reducing the scope and influence of the U.S. Department of Education. That has drawn sharp criticism for the proposed law from a number of youth advocates.

“The approach taken in the SSA was to remove the federal role in education and not to hold states to any standards,” said Lara Kaufmann, Senior Counsel and Director of Education Policy for At-Risk Students at the National Women’s Law Center.

There is bipartisan agreement that new law needs to replace the changes made to ESEA by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was passed in 2001. NCLB started to hold states accountable for how those subgroups are doing and historically low expectations increased for states, schools and students.

“It’s not appropriate to pull out of that investment,” Kaufman said.

Proponents say the act reduces federal control in education by returning the responsibility for student achievement to the states, investing tax dollars wisely and strengthening programs for schools and targeted populations.

“[The SSA] allows local school districts to have a greater role in how they achieve the results,” said Reginald Felton, assistant executive director of congressional relations for the National School Boards Association (NSBA).

That sort of measurement is currently dictated by the Department of Education, Felton said, which determines “not only saying what needs to be done, but telling you how to do it when there’s not necessarily been any evidence based on their approach.”

The bill was also supported by organizations such as the American Association of School Administrators, Concerned Women for America and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Kaufmann said she agreed that schools and districts could use more flexibility, but not at the expense of the most vulnerable students. There were missed opportunities to include the Student Nondiscrimination Act, which prevented public schools from discriminating against gay students and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which aims to prevent the bullying and harassment of students.

These acts were a part of the Democrat alternative to SSA presented by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), which did not pass.

Perhaps one of the most contentious elements is that the bill doesn’t close the funding distribution loophole and allows the state to give less funds to high poverty schools.

Other Democrat efforts to enhance data reporting, enforce accountability for graduation rates, and improve career/college preparation went unaccomplished.

Thirty-five civil rights groups, education supporters and business community members opposed the SSA in a statement. Kaufman said even business leaders recognize the need for “well-educated and prepared students” to enter the workforce.

Opponents of the overall SSA contents did support some components of the legislation, including:
• Increases in state funding for school improvement from four to seven percent.
• Funds to improve educational services for students in state and local institutions or for those children who are transferring out of institutionalization.
• Funds to provide services to help non-English speakers learn English and meet state academic standards.

“We by no means thought this bill was perfect…but it is a good step forward,” said Noelle Ellerson, assistant director of policy analysis for the American Association of School Administrators. She said many administrators felt that NCLB was an “over-prescriptive approach to student learning” that “seemed to be about testing students, aggregating data, then focusing on student learning and achievement.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on President Obama to veto the bill if it ever comes to his desk. That is an unlikely scenario, since the bill would almost certainly be conferenced with a bill from the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The Senate rewrite of ESEA – the “Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013,” submitted by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) – has passed the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and awaits floor consideration.

Harkin’s bill passed through committee with no Republican votes, and would require school systems to coordinate with child welfare systems and inform area parents about recent school discipline practices.

Justin Pye is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and Journalism for Social Change summer fellow.

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