Education Priority Number One for Congress in 2011: Reauthorize ESEA

The President Should Urge a Redesigned Education Act in His State of the Union

President Barack Obama should highlight the importance of reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year when he delivers his State of the Union address on January 25. President Obama’s approach to education reform has won bipartisan support, and this is one issue where progress may be possible. It is also an issue that’s critical to our country’s future prosperity.

Our nation does far too little to ensure that all students have access to an excellent education. This must change if our country is going to remain a global economic leader, and we believe the reauthorization of ESEA offers a seminal opportunity to advance policy reforms that will yield results for all students but particularly those living in poverty.

The president should urge Congress to focus on three critical leverage points for making our schools better: improving teacher and leader effectiveness and equity; promoting greater fairness in distributing financial resources; and supporting innovative strategies to redesign schools. The president should also launch an “educational productivity” initiative to help school districts spend every dollar wisely to best prepare our children to compete in the 21st century.

Let’s go through some strategies for promoting these elements in a reauthorized ESEA.

Improving teacher and leader effectiveness and equity

Effective teachers and leaders are the foundation of successful schools, yet most school districts don’t have the tools to identify which educators are effective or to provide them with feedback to help them improve their practice. School districts need comprehensive approaches to recruiting and developing teachers and principals, and distributing them equitably to high-poverty and low-poverty schools alike.

Title II of ESEA should be redesigned to better support districts in meeting their human capital challenges. Title II formula funding should have three important requirements attached to it:

  • Rigorous teacher and principal evaluation systems that include measures of student growth and assessments of educators’ instructional practices
  • Meaningful measures of the distribution of strong teachers as well as incentives for states and districts to ensure all students have access to effective teachers
  • State accountability systems for teacher and principal preparation programs that include multiple indicators of their performance, including measures of graduates’ impact on student growth

Finally, Title II should include competitive grant programs that support innovative approaches to recruiting, compensating, and developing teachers and leaders, such as the Obama administration’s proposed Teacher and Leader Innovation Fund, and Teacher and Leader Pathways Programs. States and districts need competitive funding so they can experiment with promising approaches and identify new strategies that work for educators and students.

Promoting greater fairness in distributing financial resources

The $14.5 billion Title I program is the most significant federal education investment in our nation’s schools. Yet as currently structured the Title I funding formula exacerbates funding inequities because it inflates allocations per poor child to wealthy states, small states, and huge districts—even those with low concentrations of low-income children. ESEA should collapse the four current formulas into a single one that only pays attention to the concentration of low-income children served, fiscal effort, and some measure of the cost of providing education that is not a proxy for wealth and varies between and within states.

Additionally, it will be virtually impossible to dramatically improve low-performing schools if we do not change the ways schools are funded in this country. Congress should require that state and local funds are equitably distributed before federal compensatory funds are considered.

CAP has been a strong proponent of closing the longstanding comparability loophole. The loophole allows districts to use abstract quantities such as student-teacher ratios in lieu of actual expenditures at the school level when documenting comparability in resources between Title I and non-Title I schools. This loophole condones inequity and undermines the compensatory purpose of Title I, as documented in CAP work.

Supporting innovative strategies to redesign schools

ESEA should promote the adoption of innovative strategies to redesign low-performing schools including expanding learning time in schools and supporting full-service community schools. These should be part of a comprehensive improvement effort. Schools that expand learning time can provide more time for academic and enrichment opportunities, while community schools offer students and families access to important social and health services and help meet students’ unmet academic and "nonacademic" needs.

ESEA should support these strategies through the administration’s proposed Promise Neighborhoods program and a time demonstration program. The goal is to ensure that those schools with the students most in need are more likely to get extra time for learning and enrichment through longer school days and years as well as community support services that make their success in school much more likely.

ESEA should also support the development of early college high schools—high schools that blend high school and college to allow students to complete a high school diploma and the first two years of college in a shorter time frame. Early college high schools can help students stay on track to high school graduation while exposing them to the rigors of college coursework and allowing them to earn free college credit.

Advancing educational productivity

Finally, the president should launch a national initiative and conversation about school investments and educational efficiency to help school districts make better use of their educational dollars. The initiative would include an annual Department of Education publication of a database that includes school-level achievement and accountability data for every district. This would make permanent the required reporting of school-level expenditures mandated as a one-time requirement under the Recovery Act of 2009.

The Education Department could further direct a series of academic studies of alternative measures of educational productivity and convene an advisory panel of innovative state and local education officials to make recommendations on how the federal government can better support state and local efforts to become more productive.

There is a strong consensus that ESEA is due for reauthorization and that important changes to the law need to be made. Now it is up to Congress to make reauthorization a priority. President Obama should urge Congress in his State of the Union to work together to reauthorize a stronger, more modern ESEA that propels our schools forward to help all students succeed.

For more State of the Union policy suggestions see:

Finding Realistic Deficit Reduction by Michael Ettlinger

Clean Energy Progress Without Congress by Daniel J. Weiss

Scale Back the Defense Budget by Lawrence J. Korb and Laura Conley

Exceptionally American Competitiveness by Sarah Wartell Rosen, Ed Paisley, and Kate Gordon

Smarter Enforcement, More Targeted Measures by Marshall Fitz and Angela Kelley

Touting the Benefits of Health Reform at This Year’s State of the Union by Karen Davenport

Outlining a Strategy for Peace by Caroline Wadhams