Exciting news about the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

On July 16, by an 81-17 bipartisan vote, the Senate passed the Every Child Achieves Act—a bill overhauling the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and its last version, the No Child Left Behind Act. The week before, the House of Representatives passed its own version of an ESEA reauthorization bill, which, although it's a partisan bill and has significant problems, still was an important step.

With the two bills ready to be reconciled in conference, we are closer than we have been in more than 14 years to getting relief from the testing madness and the "sanction, close and punish schools" climate of the past decade. We have also been able to maintain a focus on the equity and targeted funding that was such a vital component of the original ESEA President Lyndon Johnson enacted as part of the War on Poverty.

In the Senate, as a byproduct of the work the AFT has done, we have established good working relationships with leaders on both sides of the aisle. The Senate bill protects ESEA's original intent of mitigating poverty and addressing educational equity, and it stops the secretary of education from closing schools or dictating teacher evaluations. In the House, while the AFT opposed the bill because it did not maintain targeting funding for disadvantaged kids, we were also able to eliminate "adequate yearly progress" and many of the federal requirements Secretary of Education Arne Duncan imposed with Race to the Top and waivers.

Getting this result was not easy. Although the Senate bill is bipartisan, it was a dogfight every day, and we were in the discussions in a real way. But, by using the Senate bill as a base, we have the potential to get a law that our members need and want: No more NCLB, Race to the Top and waivers. No more mandatory teacher evaluation from the federal government. No more federal school closings. No more federal accountability system that applies to the whole country.

And while the funding levels have not increased, under the Senate bill, no school districts will lose money. We were successful in securing amendments to authorize full-service community schools and early childhood education programs along with requirements that states conduct regular assessments of teachers' working conditions and supports, based on the survey the AFT took of our membership.

The union has made a difference and should be proud. Our members have been heard through letters, calls, meetings with members of Congress, lobby days and social media over the past decade. Our work is not done; we still have to get through conference and get a bill signed into law. But we are off to a great start.

What follows are highlights of AFT priorities gained in both bills.

House bill

The Student Success Act of 2015 (H.R. 5) was passed July 8 by the House, 221-207. While the AFT opposed H.R. 5 because it would dilute targeting to concentrations of disadvantaged students, we did achieve some notable victories in the legislation that we will work to keep in conference. These include provisions that:

  • Maintain collective bargaining protections;
  • Require transparency around testing policies, including the right for parental opt-out;
  • Maintain existing comparability language;
  • Keep current certification requirements for paraprofessionals; and
  • Allow local assessments to be used in lieu of state assessments.

Senate bill

The Senate passed the Every Child Achieves Act (S. 1177) on July 16, 81-17. Highlights that we will work to preserve in conference include:

  • Does not impose federal mandates on teacher evaluation;
  • Maintains fiscal equity of the original ESEA;
  • Maintains class size provisions;
  • Does not impose mandated federal interventions (School Improvement Grants, school closings);
  • Provides for the conduct of a working conditions survey (inspired by our workplace stress survey);
  • Authorizes full-service community schools;
  • Caps time spent on testing;
  • Increased support for bilingual paraprofessionals;
  • Requires transparency around testing policies, including the right for parental opt-out;
  • Maintains qualification requirements for paraprofessionals;
  • Adds career and technical education as a core academic subject;
  • Maintains existing comparability language;
  • Established a pilot program for seven states to implement innovative assessments;
  • Provides funds for coordinators for community schools;
  • Increases charter school transparency and accountability;
  • Supports school nurses;
  • Doubles the time former English language learners can be counted in an ELL subgroup for accountability purposes; and
  • Maintains and expands collective bargaining protections.

Moving forward

While the Senate bill represents an important message to the country that Washington is listening, the most important step is for the president to sign a meaningful bill that embeds our core priorities. Then we will have secured the reset for which students, parents and our members have been fighting. Schooling must be about teaching and learning, not testing. We need the latitude to do what's right for our students, including bringing back the love of learning.

As we head toward conference, we will advocate for the conferees to use the Senate bill as the basis for a final bill that we hope President Obama will sign into law. We will work toward a new law that:

  • Maintains fiscal equity;
  • Relieves the pressure of high-stakes tests with a robust accountability system;
  • Ensures struggling schools receive the interventions they need to succeed;
  • Offers the reset that students, educators, parents and communities so desperately want for our nation's public schools; and
  • Increases charter school transparency and accountability.

This is one of those rare days we can say our government—at least the Senate—acted in a bipartisan way for the public interest and the public good.