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Bipartisan ESEA Bill: A Step Forward

The Alexander-Murray bill goes back to the original intent of the law — to level the playing field for at-risk children. The decreased emphasis on testing and the high stakes that go along with it will help create some breathing room, so educators can focus their attention on instruction and the joy of learning. 
 
Click here for press coverage of the bill’s release.
 
The Alexander-Murray bill fundamentally changes the federal education landscape. While ensuring that resources are directed where they are most needed (by maintaining the formula that concentrates funding for poor children, by not including portability or block grants, and by keeping maintenance-of-effort requirements), it maintains the original purpose of ESEA.

The bill sharply curtails the federal sanctions and punitive aspects that characterized NCLB — as well as its waivers and the current “Race to the Top” policy — by eliminating the most punitive and unworkable aspects of the law. While it maintains current law’s annual testing requirements — a non-negotiable issue for national civil rights groups and the Obama Administration — the new system under this bill is more flexible than the one in place now under NCLB. 
 
Public education advocate Diane Ravitch this week observed that “the bottom line is that this bill defangs the U.S. Department of Education (DOE); it no longer will exert control over every school with mandates. This bill strips the status quo of federal power to ruin schools and the lives of children and educators.”
 
The Alexander-Murray bill eliminates the rigid and unworkable “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) accountability system, mandatory punitive sanctions, and teacher evaluation that is mandated or prescribed by the federal government — and, significantly, the collective bargaining construction clause is preserved.
 


The bill’s release followed four months of grassroots advocacy by union members in Connecticut and across the country (photo above is from March meeting with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy in New Haven). The Alexander-Murray proposal largely achieves the priorities AFT outlined at the January launch of coordinated efforts:
  1. Maintaining fiscal equity: Funds are being targeted to children in poverty in keeping with the law’s original intent. In this bill, there is no portability, under which the poorest school districts would have lost more than $675 million while more-affluent districts would have gained more than $440 million. The targeted formulas for Titles I and II remain unchanged. Title III, a dedicated program for English Language Learners (ELLs), is not block-granted and therefore preserved.
 
  2. De-staking tests: Annual assessments remain as under current law, but by putting a number of proposals out there, union members and our allies made progress in returning the tests to their original intent; more measures for accountability, interventions that are not prescribed and hence not necessarily punitive, and no requirements for teacher evaluation or the need for additional required tests.
  3. Feds will not be local schools’ HR department: Teacher evaluation will not be mandated or prescribed in ESEA. Additionally, the bill prohibits the DOE from mandates (like teacher evaluations) that are not in the law in order to receive a waiver.
Click here for our previous report on AFT’s ESEA advocacy efforts.
 
AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson on Tuesday said that “the original ESEA helped us reclaim the promise of public education once, and because of the voices of AFT members and the hard work of Sens. Murray and Alexander, it can again.”
 

Moving forward, member educators must continue to push for further changes that improve our nation’s public education for themselves and the students they serve throughout reauthorization of the law. This includes pursuing amendments that improve the assessment and accountability process, provide funds for priorities such as early childhood education and community schools and that fully inform parents on testing requirements.
 
Members must continue to work with civil rights, parent, education, student and community groups, as well. For example, the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools (AROS) on Tuesday sent a letter to the Senate about charter school accountability and promoting community schools as a way of helping struggling schools. The letter has more than 100 community groups signed on.
 
Click here to read AROS’ letter.
 
AFT President Randi Weingarten in a message to union activists on Tuesday said, “I want to thank our leaders and members for the thousands of letters, tweets and emails you have sent, and the countless meetings you’ve had with your members of Congress on ESEA. Thanks to our work together, we have made some real progress, and the concerns of our members have been heard. While we still have important work to do together, we are closer than we have been in more than a decade.”
 
Click here for Weingarten’s press statement on the bill.
 
 
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