Federal Advocacy Update: Bipartisan ESEA Reauthorization Next Year Remains Uncertain

By Kelly D. Pollitt
December 2014, Volume 38, Issue 4

Despite the massive shift in Republican control resulting from the mid-term elections, Democrats and Republicans worked to wrap up the lame-duck session and pass the $1.01 trillion “CRomibus” spending package, which provides funds through next year for key federal programs in education and healthcare. Lawmakers and the White House agreed on a deal to extend funding for all federal agencies except the Department of Homeland Security through next year, which includes a small increase in education program funds at the U.S. Department of Education. Notably, the spending bill also includes language directing the U.S. Department of Education and states to better use federal funds to provide professional development for principal—pushed by NAESP and other principals’ groups.

“CRominbus” Education Funding Deconstructed

After much tension, the deal managed to come to fruition and President Obama signed H.R. 83, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015, into law. Dubbed “CRomnibus,” because it includes a Continuing Resolution “CR,” which will fund federal programs through next December, as well as an “omnibus” package that includes funding for several appropriations measures, the legislation impacts federal education budgets. The CRomnibus includes funds for the Department of Education at $70.5 billion (which is $133 million below the fiscal year 2014 enacted program levels), and provides a $25 million increase for both Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). The bill also provides $250 million for preschool grants, but does not include the creation of a new account to make the grants mandatory funding. $75 million is provided for school safety grants, and $160 million is provided for a comprehensive literacy program to help schools address student needs from the early years through high school (also known as the Striving Readers program). The bill also calls the Department of Education to task for not giving states enough flexibility in implementing the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program or allowing them to execute their own “transformation” models without departmental requirements. Congress also eliminated funding for the president’s signature Race to the Top initiative.

NAESP was pleased to see the bump in federal education funds—the Association has been advocating for increased funding for Title I and special education, among other priorities related to professional development and support for the role of principals. While there is no direct programmatic increase in funding, the federal appropriations package includes an important provision pushed by NAESP and other principals’ organizations telling the U.S. Department of Education to better recognize the role of principals, and provide direction to states to use funds for specialized professional learning for instructional leaders. Specifically, under the “School Improvement Programs” section, the bill instructs:

The Department should recognize that the roles and responsibilities of principals continue to expand, including the implementation of State-led teacher evaluation systems, college and career-ready standards and new on-line assessments, so they must be afforded specialized opportunities for professional learning and growth targeted to their role as instructional leaders. Therefore, the Department should provide guidance to SEAs on ensuring that sufficient professional development opportunities are provided to principals in order to help them improve instructional leadership capacity.

This language was inserted into the School Improvement funding division of the bill, which is where the Department of Education pulls funds to support the professional learning needs of educators (related to Parts A and B of Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). NAESP and other national organizations representing principals contend that due to poor federal guidance, principals are overlooked in funding decisions once the federal program reaches the state and local levels.

NAESP will leverage this language and continue advocacy efforts in the new Congress so that the Department of Education in fact produces this guidance, as well as work to see that this translates into additional funding allocations for principals.

In addition, NAESP’s advocacy team will use the language to prod lawmakers to direct more resources to support the critical role of principals in authorizing legislation. This will be especially important because incoming Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has indicated that ESEA will be a priority early next year. Both Chairman Alexander and Rep. John Kline (R-MN), the returning head of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, have indicated ESEA will be first up in committee business and that they will aim to pass a comprehensive bill before the end of next year. We could see movement as soon as January in the Senate. The House timetable is less clear, but it has already passed a reauthorization of the law and could quickly bring up and pass, H.R. 5, the Student Success Act (view NAESP and NASSP comments here). While Republicans can also easily reconcile House and Senate versions of ESEA, these bills do not reflect Democrat priorities.

Bipartisan ESEA Reauthorization Next Year Remains Uncertain

Republicans are expected to bring up ESEA reauthorization in January and pass bills in the committees, possibly finishing a reauthorization by late summer, before Washington becomes consumed in the 2016 election cycle. Republican ESEA proposals are aimed at narrowing the federal role in education, and moving education programs such as Title I and other categorical programs into block grant funding to states. The stated goal in shifting ESEA to a block grant program is to give states and districts as much flexibility as possible when allocating funds to meet school and student needs. Both Chairman Alexander and Rep. Kline have put forward ESEA proposals that include provisions to use federal education (Title I) funds as vouchers programs, and grant states full authority to expand choice programs, such as increasing their ability to open charter schools. Other federal legislation that may surface on the Hill includes the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) and reform of teacher and principal preparation programs. You can view NAESP and NASSP’s comments on this proposal here.

Although Republicans have publicly indicated that they want to work with Democrats in the 114th Congress, there’s no evidence of collaboration on ESEA discussions. And while there may be great intention to reauthorize ESEA, and bills are likely to be moved through the House and Senate committees, the strong Republican majorities in both chambers call into question whether or not they need to make the process bipartisan, particularly as the Obama administration has little interest in supporting a Republican version of the law that may undo their signature programs and efforts made possible through the state waivers.

In early 2015, NAESP will be working with principals to develop its federal policy and advocacy agenda, which will highlight the role of principals and help them face challenges as they continue to successfully lead schools. In the meantime, for more information or to weigh-in on the NAESP national agenda, send an email to advocacy@naesp.org.

Kelly D. Pollitt is Associate Executive Director for Policy, Public Affairs, and Special Projects at NAESP.

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