U.S. Senate votes to leave many education reforms to the states

Washington – The U.S. Senate Thursday approved a sweeping overhaul of the federal role in education that would leave up to Connecticut and other states whether to continue with education reforms including the controversial Common Core standards and linking teacher evaluations to student test scores.

The bipartisan bill was approved on an overwhelming 81-17 vote, Connecticut’s two Democratic senators, Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, split on the measure. Murphy, who failed in an effort to amend the bill to make schools more accountable, voted no. His amendment had been a rallying point for civil rights groups that oppose the bill.

The first overhaul of federal education policy in more than 12 years, the bill would leave in place an annual testing schedule and require reporting on the performance of vulnerable groups of students, but would shift to states and local districts greater control on the role of tests in assessing the performance of schools, teachers and students.

The bill also would also bar the federal government from setting academic standards, such as Common Core.

The “Every Child Achieves Act” would replace the Bush-era “No Child Left Behind Act” that in 2002 established a bigger federal role in the nation’s public schools and tied federal penalties to school performance.

In explaining his vote, Murphy said, “I can’t support a bill that doesn’t require schools to take action when certain groups of students are being marginalized, but I remain hopeful that we can strengthen accountability measures in the final bill before we send it to the president’s desk.”

The Senate and the House, which passed a more conservative education bill last week, must now negotiate a final bill. Both bills pass more authority over education to the states and rein in federal requirements that states and districts intervene to improve underachieving schools.

Connecticut leaders have implemented controversial changes to education policy in recent years in an effort to either land additional federal funding or avoid punitive measures required under the No Child Left Behind law.

The changes have included rolling out the Common Core curriculum and linking student test sores to teacher evaluations and allowing them to be considered in tenure and dismissal decisions.

While the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has been a strong supporter of these changes, it’s unclear whether that would continue absent a federal incentive or requirement.

Malloy — who has said repeatedly that “education is the civil rights issue of our time” — did not comment Thursday on how the state would wield any new authority to determine its own school accountability system, saying he is not convinced the bill will become law.

“Washington over the last couple of years has proven not to be particularly helpful” in passing legislation, he told reporters. “I’ll be talking to (U.S. Education) Secretary (Arne) Duncan later today or tomorrow, and it will probably come up, and I am certainly anxious to see what the president’s take on it is. If it’s not going to become law, then I am not going to lose a lot of sleep over it.”

In a statement after the Senate vote, Duncan said the Obama administration is unhappy with the bill.

“This bill still falls short of truly giving every child a fair shot at success by failing to ensure that parents and children can count on local leaders to take action when students are struggling to learn,” Duncan said.

Teachers unions, however, hailed the bill’s approval.

“Every student in America will be better off under this legislation than the generation of students wronged by ‘No Child Left Untested’,” said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. “The unmitigated failure of the test and punish culture shackled educators, and we are now one step closer to ending that woeful chapter in American education policy.”

Teacher unions in Connecticut have long expressed concern about over-testing students and about a requirement that student test scores account for nearly one-quarter of a teacher’s annual evaluation.

Connecticut in recent years has also used test scores to direct additional state funding to the lowest-performing school districts and, in rare cases, to justify  additional state intervention through the appointment of a so-called “special master” or “receiver” to oversee a failing school district.

In Washington, a coalition of civil rights and disability right groups strongly opposed the bill and urged senators to vote ‘no’ Thursday. The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which established the federal government’s role in K-12 education, is a civil rights bill.

Because the Every Child Achieves Act would not sanction schools that don’t address the problems of vulnerable populations — poor and minority children and disabled students — the coalition said they’d rather leave the current system in place, even if it is greatly flawed.

“The Every Child Achieves Act so restricts the federal enforcement role, consistently maintained in ESEA throughout the decades, that we do not have confidence that the law would be faithfully implemented or that the interests of our nation’s most vulnerable students would be protected,” the coalition wrote in a letter to Senate members. “The hard-learned lesson of the civil rights community over decades has shown that a strong federal role is crucial to protecting the interests of educationally underserved students.”

Murphy’s amendment had tried to address the coalition’s concerns, but it failed Wednesday on a 43-54 vote. Teachers’ unions opposed the amendment because they said it would maintain “adequate yearly progress,” a measure by which schools, districts, and states are held accountable for student performance under No Child Left Behind.

Connecticut, which has some of the largest achievement gaps in the nation between minority students and their peers, has taken steps toward crafting its own accountability system.

It is now awaiting federal approval for a system that would rate schools on more than just test scores — provisions that are included in the dueling bills approved by both Congressional chambers. The state would begin rating schools and districts on the prevalence of students chronically absent, graduation rates, access to art classes, physical fitness and enrollment of students in college.

“The federal government has opened the door for states to have flexibility with what our accountability system looks like,” said Ajit Gopalakrishnan, interim chief performance officer for the Connecticut State Department of Education. “We were able to improve and innovate our system.”

Supporters of the federal overhaul hope to send President Obama a final bill by the end of the year. It would be among the most significant accomplishments of the 114th Congress, impacting about 50 million schoolchildren.

About 100 amendments were considered during the Senate’s two-week debate of the bill. Most were defeated, but an amendment by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., that would change a federal funding formula was approved on Thursday.

The formula would distribute Title I funds by scrapping four formulas and replacing them with a simple equation — multiplying the number of poor children in a state by the national per-pupil expenditure for poor children. Burr said the current formula hurts poor rural states with smaller populations.  A change to Burr’s formula, however would impact New York and New England, including Connecticut.

The Connecticut Education Association, which says it represents 43,000 teachers in Connecticut, said the state would lose $18 million in federal funds under the formula.

The CEA called the new education bill “an important step in the right direction,” but said it hoped negotiators of a final bill would make revisions to key provisions, including Burr’s amendment.

 

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