The re-authorization of ESEA in DC has not gone away, it has merely moved to the staff offices for a while, while the elected ones try to figure out what will fly politically in today’s climate. In their mind, they are stuck between what their electorate wants (very little if any federal involvement in education) and what could be passed in DC and signed by the president (nothing short of his full education agenda.) Politicians look for a win-win where they won’t have to step out alone on a branch but, is such a scenario legislatively possible? It would appear, from the diametrically opposed goals of the two sides, the answer is no. Still, I can’t help picturing the scene in House of Cards where the six 20 something staffers are locked in a room until they can write the “perfect comprehensive education reform bill”  that will fulfill the president’s inaugural promises to “properly fix, finance, and strengthen our nations schools,”  This scene is not that far off from the reality in DC. No wonder we are where we are with the feds and education.

There is little real belief that anything Congress passes for education would be signed by the president and there still is not enough political will to override a veto. So much for our efforts to elect Republican (supposedly conservative) majorities in both houses. This might explain the growing skepticism by the grassroots about the benefit of expending effort to get a republican president elected.

That said, we should still keep the pressure on DC to offer a “block grant” option in any proposed ESEA legislation. This would mean that a state could replace all the federal funding streams for a block grant, in return for a simple written commitment to work to improve the education of disadvantaged children. Anything other than this would just be an attempt to dress up all the old requirements of NCLB and trim away only the most egregious sections locking us into all the standards, testing and data gathering for another 6-7 years. They are expected to take this issue back up in mid-April.

For the moment it seems we are destined to stay exactly where we are with federal education agenda and funding. We’ve lived with it for at least 10 years, so we should know what that means for the states. Experience has shown what it actually means, but still local legislators do not understand the lesson. So let’s talk a little about what is really at stake and where the power actually lies.

ESEA is a federal program designed to help the poorest students and districts by supplying supplemental funding to address the special needs of those students.

We should practice saying this phrase again and again and understanding what each of those parts means. It is not the federal education program for everyone. It is not the main source of education funding. It is not meant to make every student in America exceptional. It is not designed to fund workforce development. It is not designed to make everyone college material. So why did NCLB and the current version The Student Success Act, still act like ESEA is meant to do all these things? And why do states agree to all these requirements for what is just a little extra money?

The federal government contributes just a small fraction of education money to the states, usually around 10%. Individual districts may receive a higher percentage than that once the money is funneled through a state’s funding formula. This is a distribution issue, however, not an overall funding issue.

The threats the feds put out to states for failure to comply with all the requirements of NCLB are as follows:

(a) – sending a letter to the State Education Authority (SEA) requesting that it come into compliance,
(b) – increasing monitoring,
(c) – placing a condition on the SEA’s Title I, Part A grant award or its ESEA flexibility request,
(d) – placing the SEA on high-risk status (34 C.F.R. § 80.12),
(e) – issuing a cease and desist order (GEPA section 456 (20 U.S.C. § 1234c)),
(f) – entering into a compliance agreement with the SEA to secure compliance (GEPA 457 (20 U.S.C. § 1234f),
(g) – withholding all or a portion of the SEA’s Title I, Part A administrative funds (ESEA section 1111 (g)(2) (20 U.S.C. § 631 I (g)(2))),
(h) – and suspending, and then withholding, all or a portion of the State’s Title I, Part A programmatic funds (GEPA section 455 (20 U.S.C. § 1234d)).

Initially this may seem like a scary list, but understand that (a) through (d) are basically administrative paperwork that waste time and accomplish nothing. (e) + (f) are really more legal posturing that a state doesn’t really need to do.

(g) is where money first enters the picture. Typically only a fraction, ~10%, of the set-aside administrative state funds (1% of Title I state funds) is all that is at stake here.  This is not money that goes to the districts to teach children, this is money that goes to the  SEA for their administrative costs. Most likely we are talking about a fraction of 1% of the admin set-aside of Title I (a fraction of 1% of the 10% federal funding). Very little money in the big picture. The SEA’s, however, view it as their “free money,” and are typically very unhappy about its potential loss.

They also tend to view the source of their money as their boss and forget that the state is in fact their boss. This is quite clearly the problem with DESE and most SEAs. Combine Title I funds with additional federal grant monies and you begin to see that the majority of DESE funding comes from outside the state, and the majority of their allegiance falls outside the state as well. Limitations placed on the department by the legislature become barriers to them making their boss happy which is why they fight them so hard. Hopefully now you understand the dynamic that exists between DESE and the legislature.

The last one (h) threatens the outright loss of Title I money for  students. To understand why this will never happen, just look back at the description of the purpose of Title I. It is to help the most vulnerable students. Even Carl Rove could not spin denying money to the poorest students into a political positive.  What this becomes is a PR battle, not a funding issue, and one that should be joined on behalf of the state wholeheartedly by our elected US Senators and Representatives.

Everything in ESEA/NCLB affects ALL students, even though it was only meant to address the poorest students. A letter from the USDoED to the state of Alaska was provided to clarify whether 95% of students must be forced to take the statewide assessments. This paragraph from the letter by Deborah S. Delisle  demonstrates how lost the original intent of Title I has gotten.

“ESEA section 1111(b)(3)(C)(i) requires State assessments to “be the same academic assessments used to measure the achievement of all children (emphasis added).” So, with certain limited exceptions described below, the assessments an SEA develops must be the same for all students in the State. An SEA may not assess only a sample of students, even if that sample is representative of students in each LEA or the State as a whole. One reason for this is to help ensure that all students in a State are held to the same high expectations, regardless of a student’s race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or neighborhood.”

It is clear that the initial purpose of section 1111(b)(3)(C)(i) was to make sure states didn’t “hide” the performance of their poorest students. They had to use the same test for everyone to make sure they weren’t applying a lower expectation to some subset of students. They must offer it to everyone, not just a sample that they select. But the language clearly applies to the state’s obligations, not the student’s. If individual students do not wish to be part of the testing, they are not required to by this language.

Why do the feds need to know the performance of all students when their money is only supposed to be going to help the poorest students? That’s like saying, “Because the state gets WIC money for the neediest mothers, we are going to have to see the financial statements from every mother in the state to make sure the WIC mothers are doing at least as well in providing food as every other mother.” The small fraction of money is being used to justify sweeping regulation of all students.

The veiled threat in Delisle’s to take away additional funds (SIG, IDEA, etc.) for being out of compliance with the “assessment requirements” is even more far fetched.

“As noted above, an SEA or its LEAs may find themselves out of compliance with other Federal programs that use student achievement results as well, including programs targeting students most at risk including, but not limited to: SIG; ESEA Title III; Part B of the IDEA; programs for rural schools under ESEA Title VI; migratory students under ESEA Title I, Part C; and programs focused on professional development and other supports for teachers, such as ESEA Title II.”

Keeping in mind the intended beneficiaries of those funds, you can see how these threats too will never likely happen, but are used nevertheless to scare states into compliance.
Being “out of compliance,” in this light, is actually not such a big deal. If states push back against the threats they will likely meet little resistance. Just look at California which passed Assembly 484 saying it would not administer statewide assessments in 2013-14? The angry threats began immediately from DC. But in the end NOTHING came of it. USDoED is full of bluster but it knows it can’t win if a state calls its bluff.


Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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