3 ESEA Issues to Pay Attention to

David DeSchryver

What are the big stories for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as it heads towards conference? Today, Education Writers Association hosted a packed webinar'with Education Week's federal reporter Lauren Smith Camera, Capitol Hill veteran Bethany Little, and myself'to answer that very question. 

There are many important storylines, of course. It is, after all, the largest federal K-12 investment vehicle and we're nearly a decade behind in reauthorizing the bill. Here are a few that stand out for me:

Funding Rules. The Senate's "supplement, not supplant" (SNS) language is a radical departure from the way that Congress has allowed schools to use federal funds, and this departure could have some large market implications. Today, there is a presumption of supplanting if certain facts are in place (such as using federal funds for a program that is required by the state or that benefits all students in the district). That presumption helps to ensure that the federal funds are used only for supplemental purposes, not to replace state and local dollars. Over time, these rules have spawned large supplemental instructional material and assessment markets.

This market could shift for the benefit of more students under the Senate's SNS language. The exact student and program beneficiaries would no longer be at issue if the district could meet the new compliance test, which is this: can the district demonstrate that "the methodology used to allocate State and local funds to each school [...] ensures that such school receives all of the State and local funds it would otherwise receive if it were not receiving assistance under this part." It appears that, under this new test, the presumption of compliance would flip ' there would now be a presumption against supplanting.„Ι As a result, it would be far easier for a district to spend Title I dollars to support district-wide academic initiatives, making this $14 billion annual investment far more flexible and accessible.

Holistic Systems of Support. As there may be more funding flexibility, there is a renewed focus on holistic approaches to systems of interventions and supports. Under NCLB, the systems of supports and interventions focused on the students who were failing or at risk of failing that state's academic achievement standards, which were measured by test scores. The Senate's bill steps away from the focus on "academic achievement" and towards "academic failure." At first glance, this may seem like a small change, but it is significant because the "failure" is not coupled to assessment scores. It is connected to broader measures that gauge readiness for postsecondary education or the workforce without the need for postsecondary remediation.„Ι Consequently, the district would now have an incentive to invest in more preventative or risk-mitigating programs. This means that things like early learning investments and early warning analytics programs would not only be an allowable expense, but encouraged ones. The funding flexibility mentioned above only reinforces this important shift.

Is the Federal Focus on Literacy Back? Education policy makers have not recovered from the "scandal" of the NCLB Reading First program. If you have been at this awhile, you will recall that in the first years of the law Read First was, at the same time, the most effective federal education initiative and the most troubled one. The White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) rated it as the only "effective" program in NCLB, but lawmakers went after it because it promoted direct instruction over other reading instructional approaches, which infuriated some camps. The program, ultimately, was brought down by political controversy and Congress cut its funding.

Ever since, there has been a sense (or so I believe) that many educators welcomed the focus on reading and would like something akin to Reading First. There is something in the Senate's ESEA reauthorization bill that is worth a close examination: the new "Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation" program. This program invests in improving state literacy instruction plans and distributes funding across the learning spectrum. The state has to provide not less than 15% for birth-Kindergarten grants, not less than 40% for K-5 grants, and not less than 40% for grades 6-12 grants. It does not prescribe what has to happen, but only that the programs are "evidence-based" and ensure high-quality comprehensive literacy instruction for students most in need. This ties nicely with the holistic system of supports identified above, so it will be interesting to see whether this survives the forthcoming conference.