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Education Reauthorization Subject of Hearing

In preparation for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a hearing on three legislative proposals (H.R. 1, H.R. 340, H.R. 345) was held by the House Education and the Workforce Committee on March 29.

Last reauthorized in 1994, the ESEA represents the federal government’s contribution to public education for grades K-12. During the 106th Congress, efforts to pass reauthorizing legislation were unsuccessful (see The Source, 5/12/00, p. 2).

While most public education funds are supplied by state and local taxes, federal funds authorized under the ESEA cover about 7 percent of public education costs. The largest portion of ESEA funds are made under the bill’s Title I, which targets schools with large numbers of disadvantaged and low-income students.

The President’s plan for education reform in grades K-12 was one of his major campaign themes (see The Source, 3/16/01, p. 4; 3/9/01, p. 4). H.R. 1, sponsored by Committee Chair John Boehner (R-OH), is based on many of the President’s proposals.

Under H.R. 1, public school students in grades three through eight would be required to take annual assessment tests in reading, writing, math, and science. Students attending Title I schools with test results that do not meet certain standards for three consecutive years would be allowed to change schools. The estimated annual $1,500 per-student expenditure for Title I students would “travel” with a student changing schools under the school choice plan. The money could be transferred to an alternate public school or be used to help pay tuition at a private institution.

For Title I schools falling below the standards, federal funds would be supplied to spur improvement. However, a state government would be called upon to intervene if a school continually failed to meet standards.

Additionally, H.R. 1 reflects the President’s plan to authorize an additional $600 million in FY2002 for reading and literacy education, with $5 billion to be spent over the next five years on such efforts. The additional funds would increase FY2002 spending from $300 million to $900 million.

The bill would set some new federal standards, including a requirement that schools ensure English proficiency within three years for students who enter the public school system with English as their second language. H.R. 1 would emphasize efforts to improve teachers’ skills with technology, increase school safety efforts, and reform math and science curricula.

Currently, the ESEA includes 58 programs organized under 13 legislative titles. H.R. 1 would consolidate several of those programs and narrow the number of legislative titles to six. For example, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program would be consolidated with the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act. Faith-based entities would be eligible for grants available under the newly consolidated program.

H.R. 340, sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-CA), and H.R. 345, sponsored by Rep. Tim Roemer (D-IN), are not as comprehensive as H.R. 1. Both bills reflect different approaches in key areas, such as school choice, assessment of school and teacher quality, and math and science curricula. H.R. 340 contains language crafted by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) that would authorize a new program specifically designed to encourage girls to excel in math, science, and engineering studies.

The committee heard testimony in support of all three legislative proposals. While most witnesses preferred the approach outlined in H.R. 1, several witnesses noted areas of concern.

Testifying on behalf of the Business Coalition for Excellence in Education, Keith E. Bailey expressed strong support for the annual testing requirement contained in H.R. 1. “Assessments in the early years are particularly important to ensuring that all children have a successful start in core academic subjects,” he said. Mr. Bailey also urged the committee to include strong investments in math and science, teacher preparation and training, and technology in education.

Additionally, Mr. Bailey called for “bold legislative language,” saying, “We urge you to be clear about what the federal investment is for, what national needs and priorities must be addressed, but set standards of accountability for achieving those expectations, then let the state and local authorities have enough flexibility to achieve the results you are asking them to produce.”

Kenneth L. Connor of the Family Research Council commended H.R.1 for its “pro-family provisions.” Specifically, Mr. Connor noted that the bill gives greater flexibility to states and localities, provides for stronger accountability, consolidates “bureaucratic and repetitive programs,” and provides for school choice.

However, Mr. Connor expressed concern about including science in the annual assessment component, stating, “Science standards regarding the origins of life can be controversial … Science assessments were not included in President Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ proposal either. Reading, writing and math are the building blocks of academic achievement and we must focus on these.” Mr. Connor also expressed concern that H.R. 1 “does not go far enough” with respect to school choice.

However, Gail E. Foster of the Black Alliance for Educational Options applauded the school choice provisions in H.R. 1, saying, “You have no idea what it is like to be trapped in a poor performing school like the ones in our neighborhoods. Some of you used to live in our neighborhood. Some of you still do. Yet you used your resources to escape the worst schools. And now you are saying to us that for philosophical and political reasons, you are compelled to prevent us from escaping.”

Speaking in support of H.R. 340, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), AFL-CIO, said that the bill “incorporates most of the key elements that should be part of reauthorization.” In particular, he noted that H.R. 340 strengthens Title I’s focus on disadvantaged children, improves the quality of teachers, and continues the class size reduction program, as well as after-school and school safety activities.

While praising some aspects of H.R. 1, Mr. Weingarten stated that provisions pertaining to school choice and block grants were “fatally flawed.” He said, “AFT believes that school choice, an absolutely appropriate mechanism, should only be available under the public school system where options must be held to the same standards and accountable for the use of public funds.”

Paul Houston of the American Association of School Administrators spoke in favor of H.R. 345, saying that the bill “improves the targeting of funds to schools with large concentrations of high need students and low resource schools,…sets high goals for student achievement and places clear accountability for achievement squarely on schools, school districts and states, not on children,…takes the first step toward creating bigger funding streams that drive a greater percentage of federal funds to the local level,…[and] promotes public school choice and rejects vouchers.”

William S. White of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation urged the committee to “maintain the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative as a separate program with a separate appropriation as set forth in current law.” He discussed the importance of the initiative in providing quality after-school programs, noting that the programs have improved student achievement and attendance in school, as well as addressed a number of social issues such as youth crime. “In our experience, this scale is the best chance we’ve ever seen to make a permanent difference in how communities and schools work together. It’s too soon to make wholesale changes in the program. If we do, we risk losing all the gains we’ve made,” he said.

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