Talking About Changes to ESEA
This week, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will hit the Senate floor, and no doubt there will be some amendments proposing big changes to the bipartisan bill which was voted unanimously out of committee. Here is a bit of quick background on four amendments that, if passed, could unravel bipartisan agreement on the bill.
An amendment to divert federal taxpayer dollars from Title I to pay for students to attend private or parochial schools would undercut already limited support for schools with high concentrations of poverty. Here’s why moving to this type of funding system would be a mistake:
- Voucher programs have not proven to be any more effective than traditional funding structures in raising student achievement levels for low-income students. Without any real evidence to suggest that vouchers produce better outcomes for kids, Congress should not gamble away the limited federal dollars we have to experiment on unproven voucher programs.
- Unlike their public school counterparts, private schools are not required to participate in the same transparency and accountability systems mandated under federal law—making it impossible to judge if a taxpayer investment was actually paying off.
- Vouchers would divert limited federal resources away from districts needing financial assistance the most and instead redirect that same taxpayer funding into to private schools, which are often already equipped with the best resources available.
For more information on vouchers, read our full memo on the issue here.
Title I Portability
Similar to vouchers, a Title I portability amendment would allow nearly $15 billion in Title I funding to follow individual students to the school of their choice, though unlike vouchers, that money would be limited to schools in the public K-12 system. Here’s why such a move would be a drastic disruption to the current Title I funding formula, which distributes money to schools based on economic need:
- The current Title I funding formula recognizes that it costs more money to educate students that are in higher concentrations of poverty. Allowing those funds to become portable would take funding away from the poorest districts and schools and place it in more affluent ones.
- According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, the result of making Title I funds portable would be to provide an extra $300 per student to the wealthiest districts while taking $85 per student away from those districts with the highest concentrations of poverty.
Grade Span Testing
While those suggesting it would be better to test students only once in fourth, eighth, and eleventh grade may have good intentions, an amendment to eliminate annual testing requirements in favor of “grade span” testing would make it impossible to collect the data needed to address persistent achievement gaps and would ultimately hurt both students and teachers. Here’s why:
- Before annual testing requirements were put into place, we had no way to measure academic growth or address the gaps in achievement among different student groups, including low-income students, students with disabilities, and students of color. Because of privacy requirements on the minimum number of students who must be in a group if data is going to be released, grade span testing would erase our ability to measure many of those groups in schools across the country.
- If we only tested kids once per grade span, parents or teachers of a child who begins to fall behind in fifth grade might not know it until 8th grade—often too late to intervene.
- Grade span testing would make it impossible to measure student growth from year to year, leaving grade-level proficiency as the only measure. That means if a student comes into 8th grade at a 5th grade reading level and a teacher helps catch that student up to a 7th grade reading level, that student will be labeled as failing, as will the teacher.
Testing Opt Out
An amendment that would omit students who “opt out” of testing from the requirement that 95% of students participate in statewide tests could undermine the rights of parents who fought so hard for their children to be included. Here’s why making exceptions to the rule would be dangerous:
- Before NCLB’s 95% testing threshold, schools across the country excluded groups of students from testing in order to inflate their overall performance—and parents of those excluded students were denied the ability to know how their children were faring.
- Before NCLB, only one state (Kansas) tested 95% or more of their students with disabilities. Because of NCLB’s testing requirements, by the 2004-2005 school year 46 states plus D.C. tested 95% or more of all of their students and subgroups of students.
- An amendment that would allow students who “opt out” of tests to be omitted from the 95% testing threshold would make it easier to exclude historically marginalized students from accountability systems once again, as it would be difficult for the federal government to distinguish where non-participation was truly voluntary from where it had been encouraged by teachers, school officials, or administrators (as too often happened in the past for certain groups of students).