Policy Insider Blog

Your Source of Information from Inside the Beltway

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos Speaks with Magnet Educators

Making her first appearance before a public audience as the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos addressed magnet school leaders at Magnet Schools of America's recent National Policy Training Conference in Washington, DC. MSA invited the Secretary to discuss her vision of magnet schools within the school choice landscpape. Her appearance was also used as an opportunity for us to hear more about Secretary DeVos' priorities now that she's in office, and to expand her understanding of magnet schools at a time when she is formulating her agenda and budget for the next four years.

She began by sharing how she has witnessed the success of magnet schools first hand and recognized City High Middle School an IB program in her home town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. She added, "After 40 years since the inception of magnet schools, I think it's important to celebrate their important role and also to remind ourselves that there's so much more work to be done. But the reality is: What makes your schools transformative places of learning is not the brick and mortar, it's you, the human connection. You and your teachers are the difference-makers and the life-changers."

MSA Executive Director, Todd Mann then asked the Secretary several questions related to magnet schools. He begin by asking how magnet schools can gain more attention and support at the federal, state, and local level. The Secretary answered that she is “agnostic to the delivery method of education, as long as it meets the individual needs of students.” She added, “It is clear that magnet schools are doing a tremendous job and that she would like to help us highlight this success by telling our story in a more personal way.”

Mann followed-up and asked the Secretary to describe her views on promoting school diversity as a strategy for improving student achievement. Secretary DeVos responded, "Experiencing and being a part of a diverse environment is critical to the development of any young person, child, or student. Magnet schools focus significantly on school diversity and giving students a broad view of the world. This can't be celebrated enough."

Before concluding the discussion, Todd asked the Secretary if she would support increased magnet school funding at the federal level. DeVos responded, “the Department is still formulating its budget, but she supports magnet schools and other high performing school models.” She added, "We shouldn’t, however, necessarily focus our conversations on funding school buildings, but rather we should discuss funding students.” That ambiguous statement certainly caught the attention of the audience. 

Trump at the Head of the Class

With the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, it is unclear how much the world of education will likely change. During the campaign, the president-elect made several statements about his policy preferences. He stated that "we need to fix our broken education system and keep it local." He believes the Common Core is a "very bad thing" and that the U.S. Department of Education should be streamlined, or possibly eliminated. 

Before election day, Donald Trump released an outline of his education priorities that lean heavily on providing students with more school choice. He echoed this sentiment in his Contract with the American Voter which outlines his agenda for his first 100 days in the White House. In his proposal, he calls for a federalinvestment of $20 billion for school choice programs. This will be done, according to the plan, by reprioritizing existing federal dollars.  

The distribution of funding will favor states that have private school choice, magnet schools and laws that encourage charters. His plan would establish the national goal of providing school choice to all 11 million school aged children living in povertyIt is uncertain how this additional funding will materialize, but the idea of adding a Title I portability provision to the Every Student Succeeds Act has been discussed by his advisors. 

In regards to the launch of the Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA, Gerard Robinson, who is one of Trump's transition team education leaders believes that the president-elect respects that ESSA was passed by a bipartisan effort and that he doesn't expect him to become deeply involved in ESSA's initial implementation. With ESSA's promise to put more control into state and local hands, Robinson proclaims that it will be a good time to be a state school officer. 

Soon the White House and Congress will be under the complete control of one party. This will give President-Elect Trump the opportunity to advance a large portion of his agenda. This could mean additional support for magnet schools in one form or the other. The Republican National Committee platform details its support for school choice including home-schooling, career and technical education, private or parochial schools, magnet schools, charter schools, online learning, and early-college high schools. The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Paul Ryan has also expressed his support of school choice policies that favor charter and magnet schools. 

As the presidential inauguration quickly approaches in January, all attention is now focused on who will be chosen to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education. At this time, Success Academy Charter Schools founder and CEO, Eva Moskowitz, Tony Bennett, who is the former Education Commissioner of Florida and Indiana; former DC School Chancellor, Michelle Rhee; the Chairman of the Congressional School Choice Caucus, Rep. Luke Messer from Indiana; Betsy DeVos and Kevin Chavous from the American Federation for Children; and Ben Carson are all thought to be on the short list for this position. Ben Carson, however, recently stated he is not considering the post because of his lack of experience running a federal agency. 

Regardless of who is chosen, the presidential honeymoon period is always short and with a budget still left to complete, ESSA state plans pending future review, and a wide range of other policy issues waiting at the doorstep this individual will have to hit the ground running. 

Supporting a Well Rounded Education

In an effort to help school districts provide students with a well rounded education that includes the humanities and arts, the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to state and local education leaders outlining creative ways they may enhance holistic education programs by utilizing in conjunction various federal resources.The department defines humanities in the letter as history, civics, government, economics, geography, literature, art, music and other non-STEM subjects not usually found in the English/language arts curriculum.

The Dear Colleague Letter suggests ways that Title I funds may be used to purchase humanities learning materials, devices such as tablets and laptops, and digital learning resources. It also describes how these funds may be used to support field trips that expose students to the humanities. The guidance goes into detail how Title II dollars may be used for professional development activities that support instruction and course development. Additionally, it explains how funds may be used to provide incentives to recruit effective school leaders and educators in these subject areas. 

Furthermore, it encourages grantees to utilize Carl Perkins funding to create humanities focused career and technical education programs and experiential learning opportunities, such as internships and mentorships for students. Be sure to review the new guidance. It also includes ideas for supporting after-school programs, students with learning disabilities, and English learners.

Obama Administration Commits to School Diversity with
"Stronger Together" Initiative

By Gina Chirichigno and Philip Tegeler

Addressing a crowded room of magnet school educators and supporters last week, Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King explained his personal commitment to school diversity and the importance of reducing racial isolation in schools. 

"I was a kid who benefited from intentional school diversity, and I'm a parent who prioritizes that in how I think about the education of my children," he said, describing his experiences at two intentionally diverse schools in New York City (P.S. 276 in Canarsie and Mark Twain Junior High in Coney Island). "Teachers at those two schools saved my life," he declared. "They are the reason I am standing here today."

King's children both attend diverse public schools in Montgomery County, MD, which, as he noted, has been working to implement intentional strategies to integrate both housing and education for decades. Now, he wants to encourage other communities to adopt that approach. 

Thanks in large part to Secretary King, the Obama administration has now made a meaningful commitment to reducing racial and socioeconomic isolation in our nation's schools, by proposing a $120 million request in the 2017 budget to fund the "Stronger Together" initiative. The new competitive funding program would offer planning and implementation grants for voluntary, community-developed socioeconomic integration plans. The proposed 2017 budget also includes an increase in funding for the Magnet Schools Assistance program, another school integration program. 

The Stronger Together program would supply four implementation grants (averaging $25 million each) for up to five years to support communities currently implementing strategies to improve racial and socioeconomic diversity. Stronger Together would also award 10 one-year planning grants (averaging $2 million each) to help support activities such as: fostering family and community engagement; assessing economic stratification; evaluating the adequacy of transportation infrastructure; increasing capacity for data collection, etc. 

As members of the National Coalition on School Diversity (www.school-diversity.org), we have been advocating for a clear, courageous investment in integration from the beginning of President Obama's administration. Our country is long overdue for government-supported innovation in school integration. And, while Congress is unlikely to pass the 2017 budget in its current form, we are confident that the commitment to school diversity will remain in some form in the final budget.

Studies consistently show that school integration by race and socioeconomic status is strongly associated with a range of short and long term benefits for all racial groups. As a whole, however, our nation's schools remain overwhelmingly isolated by race and class, even as our country becomes increasingly diverse. Such isolation is not benign; rather, it fuels a vicious cycle of structural educational inequity and, too, strips us of opportunities to build community across lines of difference.

Justice Thurgood Marshall's observation that, "Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together," is now supported by a strong research base demonstrating the benefits of racial integration-not just for student achievement, but also for reducing interracial prejudice and strengthening relations between racial groups. This research should encourage us all to take integration strategies more seriously. 

We are particularly pleased to see such a strong emphasis on community engagement and involvement in the Stronger Together program-voluntary school integration efforts are most effective when communities come together to develop the political will to co-create and implement strategies that respond to their unique context. We can readily point to examples of remarkable community-led integration efforts in progress, in cities such as Hartford, CT; Richmond, VA; and New York, NY. But the lack of federal, state, local, and foundation support for this work makes it extremely challenging to initiate and sustain, even when there is strong interest. Programs like Stronger Together would help change that.

Stronger Together would afford communities across the country the opportunity to come together and co-create learning environments where, truly, every student can succeed. It is now up to people on the ground-educators, parents, students, and community leaders-to ensure that the administration's newly-ignited commitment to school integration receives the funding we believe it deserves. 

Gina Chirichigno is outreach coordinator for the National Coalition on School Diversity, www.school-diversity.org. You can reach her at gchirichigno@prrac.org

Philip Tegeler is executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, www.prrac.org. You can reach him at ptegeler@prrac.org.

Every Student Succeeds Act Improves Access to Magnet Programs and Provides Needed Support to Address Growing Problem of Resegregation in American Public Schools

 In a substantial victory for magnet schools across the country, the President signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This legislation will reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act also known as the No Child Left Behind Act and expand federal support for magnet programs. It reauthorizes the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) and allows funding for MSAP to gradually grow from its current level of $91 million to $108 million in FY 2020. In addition, the ESSA will extend the length of the grant by two years and increase cumulative grant funding for successful magnet programs to $15 million.

Magnet Schools of America (MSA) Executive Director Todd Mann stated, "We are very pleased that Congress has acknowledged the value and need to expand magnet schools in our public education system. The continuation of this crucial support will help countless school districts create new innovative theme-based magnet programs that will prepare our students to live in diverse communities and flourish in an increasingly competitive workforce.”

In addition to reauthorizing the program, the ESSA makes several strategic changes to (MSAP):

  • It prioritizes the creation of magnet schools that promote socioeconomic integration and diversity. This acknowledges a wide body of research that shows that the socioeconomic composition of schools is the greatest factor affecting student achievement. 
  • The ESSA will improve the timeliness of the MSAP grant by instructing the U.S. Department of Education to disperse its grant funds at the beginning of the summer. Typically, MSAP grants are awarded in late September after the start of the school year, which limits the ability of school districts to properly plan before first-year magnet implementation.
  • The bill will encourage school districts to work in coordination to break down barriers that sustain racial and socioeconomic isolation by creating interdistrict or regional magnet programs. This provision recognizes that the greatest amount of school segregation now occurs between school districts, rather than at the neighborhood level. 
  • The act will also eliminate the prohibition against using MSAP funds for transportation purposes, as long as it is sustainable and these costs do not constitute a significant portion of grant funds. This will help school districts improve access to new thriving magnet schools for all students while ensuring that a vast majority of MSAP funds will support core grant activities.

The ESSA emerged after months of bipartisan negotiations and is the combination of two bills that were passed in the House and Senate over the summer. MSA is optimistic that by passing this legislation, America’s public schools will be able to move out of an era of testing and sanctioning. This action will also help stem the tide of growing resegregation occurring in our classrooms and ensure that all students are provided with equitable educational opportunities. 

Los Angeles Magnet Schools Outshine the Rest

Late last month, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) announced 55% of magnet students met or exceeded state standards in Math and English compared to 39% in charters, 44% in California’s public schools, and 33% in LAUSD. The results are from the state’s new Smarter Balanced Assessments that were administered last spring.

The numbers paint a clear picture that not only are students from district magnet schools being properly prepared for college and future careers, but magnet school students are outperforming, by significant margins, charter schools, and public schools throughout the state.   

The data that was presented by the district is based on the examination of online assessments that were taken by 48,000 charter and 37,000 magnet school students in 3rd through 8th and 11th grades. It was released as the influential Broad Foundation floated the idea to provide LAUSD with a $490 million incentive to double the number of charter schools in the district.

Decision makers should question this proposal and look at the evidence that’s in plain view. Why expand the number of charter schools in the district when the data clearly shows magnet programs are thriving and outperforming other schools?

On Mathematics tests, 44% of all magnet students met or exceeded standards. In comparison, only 28% of charter school students met or exceeded these standards, while 33% did so statewide, and 25% in LAUSD. The same is true for Language Arts assessments, 55% of magnet students were proficient, 39% for charters, 44% statewide, and 33% in LAUSD.

When you break it down by grade level, magnet school students outperformed their peers in charter schools, district-wide, and statewide at every level. This begs the question – are LAUSD’s magnet schools just serving academically talented students? The answer is no. When the overall scores of gifted and highly gifted students are disaggregated, magnet students still outperform their counterparts.

In fact, when you begin to delve deeper into the data you find that in almost every student classification: females, males, African American, Asian, and Latinos, magnet school students outshine their peers in Math and English. The same is true for economically disadvantaged students and those with learning disabilities. What is also striking is that LAUSD’s magnet schools had far less students falling into low performance categories.

All this information should lead to one obvious conclusion, we need to pay closer attention to magnet schools and focus more energy and resources toward replicating these models of educational excellence. The numbers tell a story that is too powerful to be ignored.

The No Child Left Behind Act Should Be More than a Name

There’s always been a sad irony to me with the “No Child Left Behind” Act (NCLB) and the fact that it’s been an absolute train wreck for education over the past decade and a half. Great name, great concept, all wrapped up in a policy that left plenty of kids behind.

Thus the cause for my mistrust with a badly needed rewrite of NCLB known as the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA). Actually, to be accurate, both ECAA and NCLB are revisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that was created 50 years ago thanks to the Civil Rights Movement. More on all that later in a bit.

I can’t help but feel like a cold and bitter cynic for assuming that because Congress is calling it “Every Child Achieves”, it will become the total opposite. Mark Twain famously said the opposite of “Progress” is “Congress” and it’s always been a bit too cynical for my tastes, but with education policy throughout my 17-year teaching career, I’m beginning to see things through Twain’s eyes.

But there’s still a spirit of Don Quixote left in me that believes better days are ahead, and perhaps ECAA is a step in the right direction. “There have been some big developments on the NCLB front lately and this week the U.S. Senate will begin the process of considering legislation to update the law,” said John Laughner, Legislative and Communications Manager for Magnet Schools of America.

It’s a critically important piece of legislation because it directly impacts the 2.6 million students in the 3,800 theme-based magnet schools nationwide. For that reason, Mr. Laughner is hosting a session at the national conference about proposed reforms. He will gaze into his crystal ball, read the tea leaves, and translate the debate in Congress that will determine the next 10 to 30 years of U.S. education policy.

That’s a big task for a Saturday afternoon, but I hope the room is packed with people who are looking to actively engage in the broader national discussion. The support and funding for current magnet programs and future magnet programs is going to be dramatically impacted by ECAA and now is the time for all of us to take action because it’s still being created.

Once a bill is passed and signed, it’s difficult to change it. As a bill is being created, it is very malleable and prone to the political winds. Educators need to provide some wind in the sails for the right things to happen. More bluntly, it’s better to get “mad as hell” right now about what’s being proposed than waiting for it to pass.

For a sneak peak at what’s going on as it relates to Magnet Schools, check out this MSA press release on the bill.

Fixing our current education system is badly needed so that teachers and schools can get back to teaching students actual knowledge and skills they need to be good citizens. Being college and career ready is an important part of that but it’s not all of it. Math, reading and writing are critical skills, but they are not the only ones that matter with our high-stakes testing mentality.

Schools, teachers and students are much more than a score and magnet school teachers know that very well. What’s really sad to me is that the goal of improving equity and providing students with more diverse experiences is what’s been hurt the most by NCLB.

Near the pinnacle of the Civil Rights Movement, in 1965, the ESEA law that this is all part of was passed with the intention of providing an equitable education for all students. It was intended to take what was ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education (an end to separate but equal).

Our collective memory is short it would seem. Have we given adequate time to right the wrongs of a century of harsh segregation? Not at all. The concept of “diversity” is not something that you try to have because it’s trendy. Diversity is about bringing people together because we live in a country that is a collection of people from all over the world, like no other nation I can think of. We have people here because they wanted to be, we have people here because they had to be by force or consequence, we have people here who have always been here and were wholly or partially conquered.

Most amazing of all, is that we live together in relative peace. That’s unique to the history of the world and it’s something to take pride in and celebrate. In order to do that, people must understand the story of how that came to be. People must know that when they look at different regions of the country there are different footprints of the past. We are all equal in the eyes of the law, but because justice is carried out by people, it’s going to be imperfect.

The same is true of our laws and that’s why we need to be part of the process. Everybody’s busy. Always have been and always will be. Equity is not about giving people special rights, it’s about trying to “fast-track” a system that was broken for so long. It’s not going to be pretty, it’s not going to come easy, it’s going to go backwards sometimes before it can move ahead.

NCLB was a step ahead in some ways and a step behind in so many others. ESEA has an honorable charge and it’s time to rededicate ourselves to the spirit of the law.

We shouldn’t be testing students to make teachers or schools look bad, unless they are doing bad. We should be testing students to make sure they are getting the best learning opportunities possible all across the country in every state, every district and every school. NCLB had other intentions and it’s time to get back to what matters.

Is ECAA a step in that direction? You are the educator with practical experience. You are the one who is with kids everyday. Look into it. Read the release. Attend the session. Surf the web and look into it for yourself and find out. Then contact your Congressional representatives and senators and let them know.

That’s what is most needed so you can live what you know is best for our students. Teachers and schools will do what’s best no matter what, but they need the legal and economic backing to carry that out. When the law is misguided, it becomes a roadblock rather than a stepping stone.

All the Best,

Ron Hustvedt, Jr. 
2014 National Magnet School Teacher of the Year
Salk Middle School, Elk River, MN

Magnet Leaders Convene in Nation’s Capital

This month Magnet Schools of America held its annual National Policy Training Conference, Promoting Opportunity and Excellence in Washington, DC. The conference was organized to help magnet school leaders and educators play an influential role in the policy making process. Over three days, attendees had the chance to discuss various issues relating to magnet schools in their region and throughout the country. They also had the opportunity to visit with legislators on Capitol Hill and to hear from renowned speakers, such as Donna Brazile from CNN and ABC News.

During her keynote remarks, Ms. Brazile praised the magnet school community for its longstanding commitment to providing high-quality programs that promote school integration. She observed that magnet schools focus on teaching to the interests of students, not the other way around. She quipped, "That is the story that needs to be told." She also challenged the attendees to seize the moment. "We need more educator voices to help shape the discussion about our public education system, instead of just politicians." 

The other conference speakers represented many different national organizations and policy think tanks. They gave perspectives and advice on such issues as the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), otherwise known as No Child Left Behind and federal education funding. Kim Trinca, a representative from the National Education Association and Ramin Taheri, Senior Policy Advisor for the U.S. Department of Education, both shed light on the details of the ESEA reauthorization proposals that are currently being considered by the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

They are hopeful that Congress will be able to pass new legislation that will update the law, but they see major flaws with the bills introduced by Senator Lamar Alexander and Congressman John Kline. They seemed to agree that the bills do not go far enough in maintaining accountability, equity and resources for students who need it the most. Ramin Taheri assured the audience that the U.S. Department of Education fully supports magnet schools under any bill, and Kim Trinca told the attendees to relay their personal stories to their legislators, emphasizing, "That's what they want to hear, that's what they need to hear." 

During a panel discussion entitled Elevating Magnet Schools in the Education Reform Debate, moderated by Politico education reporter Caitlin Emma, policy experts from both sides of the political spectrum led a lively discussion about the future of magnet schools. Mike Petrilli, President of the Thomas Fordham Institute proposed the controversial idea of combining magnet schools with charters. He inquired whether it is more important to promote magnet schools rather than the ideals that charters and magnets both support, such as school choice. Cynthia Brown from the Center for American Progress agreed with the idea of a magnet/charter hybrid, however, she encouraged magnet educators to "get into the fray" and to share their successes. 

Richard Kahlenberg from the Century Foundation pushed back on the idea of a magnet/charter model. He argued that charter schools receive more attention because of two forces, the media and money. Kahlenberg said that the media loves to cover controversial topics, such as charter schools, while issues such as school integration are not as glamorous. He added that groups that support magnets such as (educators, civil rights groups, and liberals), cannot put forth the same amount of resources as Wall Street luminaries who generally support the charter school movement.

Mr. Petrilli concurred with this argument and stated that wealthy Americans and business leaders are skeptical of large public school bureaucracies and labor unions. In their mind, creating autonomous charter schools is way to promote innovation and efficiency. Attendees questioned this logic and pointed out at that the evidence supporting charter schools is very weak, especially at the ground level. Kahlenberg agreed, and then encouraged the audience to talk about their magnet schools as a turnaround model to gain greater attention. He went on to praise magnet schools for their ability to recruit high-quality, passionate teachers who generally stay at their schools for long periods of time once they are hired.

Congress Averts Another Government Shutdown, but Still Fails to
Replenish Cuts to Magnet Funding

Last weekend, the U.S. Congress passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill that averted another government shutdown and provided funds for most federal agencies and programs for the remainder of the 2015 fiscal year. The measure faced an uncertain future because of opposition to President Obama's recent executive action to provide amnesty to some illegal immigrants. During the president's speech announcing this action, he actually mentioned a former magnet school student who bravely faced the risk of deportation to attend a technology magnet program in Las Vegas, NV that she felt would give her the best shot at succeeding in America.

Nevertheless, Congress managed to reach a compromise and pass what is commonly referred to inside the beltway as a CRomnibus bill, which wraps the spending bills of all federal agencies into one. The bill will provide full-year funding to all agencies, except the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees immigration enforcement. This department only receives temporary funding for three months. It is predicted that the Republican Party will attempt to nullify President Obama's immigration action next year when they take full control of Congress by restricting funding for some functions of DHS.

So what does this all mean for magnet schools and public education in general? The spending bill would slightly decrease funding for the U.S Department of Education by $133 million. It will provide $70.5 billion to support federal K-12 and higher education programs. This constitutes approximately 2 percent of the entire portion of the discretionary federal budget or what Congress has the authority to adjust every year. While not a huge share of the overall trillion dollar pie, it is still a large amount. For comparison purposes, in 2001 the Department of Education budget was approximately $40 billion.

Generally, the CRomnibus included only a few changes from the previous fiscal year. The department's two largest programs, Title I and IDEA grants both receive a small increase of $25 million, while most federal education programs received level funding, including the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP). This was somewhat disappointing because MSAP was cut by $5 million three years ago because of a terrible policy called sequestration. Congress had the ability to restore these cuts, but with a sense of irony, chose to provide the Charter School Grant Program with an increase of this exact amount. Talk about a slap in the face! You can express your opposition to this action in our Grassroots Action Center.

Some education programs, such as Race-to-the-Top did not fare well.  It had its funding eliminated altogether. The bill also canceled funding for the $46 million High School Graduation Initiative and cut funding for the Investing in Innovation (i3) program by $21.6 million. There are some bright spots for magnet schools in the bill, the Math and Science Partnerships, Arts in Education, and the Javits Gifted and Talented programs all received funds despite being slated for elimination in the president's proposed budget. Your school district may apply for grants under these programs to support your magnet programs.

To learn more please visit the U.S. Department of Education’s website at: www.ed.gov

FCC Votes to Expand E-Rate Funding by $1.3 billion to Boost High Speed Internet and WiFi Access in Schools and Libraries (Update)

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took a bold step to increase broadband and Wi-Fi connectivity in our nation's schools and libraries by increasing the budget for the federal E-rate program from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion. The current level has not been adjusted in 17 years. The E-rate program was established in 1996 as part of the Telecommunications Act to provide funding for internet connectivity and other communications services in schools and libraries. It is the federal government’s largest educational technology program. Since it was created it has been responsible for drastically increasing the percentage of classrooms that are now connected to the internet from 14% to 94% and the percentage of public libraries that offer public internet access to 98%

Despite the success of E-rate, it has not kept pace with the speed of technological change. Today, three out of five schools lack the Wi-Fi infrastructure that is required by modern educational tools, such as laptops and tablets. Furthermore, half of our schools rely on slow internal wiring that cannot carry data at today's broadband speeds. To address these inadequacies, the FCC also restructured the program in July and committed at least $2 billion over the next two years to allow schools and libraries to improve their Wi-Fi capabilities and transition to high-speed broadband services rather than older dial-up and Ethernet connections.

The decision by the FCC to boost funding for E-rate will allow the United States to expand high-speed Wi-Fi access to 43.5 million additional students, more than 101,000 additional schools, and nearly 16,000 additional libraries. To pay for the increase the FCC expects that consumers will see their telephone bills increase by about 16 cents a month or $1.90 a year.

Midterm Elections Set the Stage for Future Education Battles

The dramatic results of the midterm elections that gave the Republican Party control of both chambers of the U.S. Congress for the first time since 2006 has set the stage for future education policy battles. This began to surface in the first week of the lame duck session that started this week.

In the Senate, Republicans gained nine seats previously held by Democrats. Depending on the outcome of a special runoff election in Louisiana in early December, it looks like the balance of power will favor Republicans by a comfortable margin of (54-46). The switch in party control of the chamber means there will be a new chairman of the congressional committee that is responsible for overseeing education policy and rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) or more commonly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). 

The individual who is slated to chair the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee is Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee. Senator Alexander was the Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. He has vowed to significantly scale back the federal role in (K-12) education policy and make the reauthorization of ESEA a top priority in the next Congress. 

Last year, as a minority member of the committee, Senator Alexander introduced ESEA/NCLB reauthorization legislation that would have allowed states to create their own accountability plans and eliminate the requirement that states set specific student achievement goals and identify certain schools as low performing. 

Senator Alexander stated that the U.S. Department of Education has "too much power over state K-12 education policy." He also argues that the Secretary of Education has states "over the barrel" by forcing them to apply for waivers from the most punitive measures of NCLB.

The U.S. House of Representatives is overwhelmingly in control of the Republican Party, which now holds its largest majority since 1928. This will allow Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH) to work his will. The Speaker released a Five Point Roadmap outlining his agenda for the next Congress, which includes improving our education system.

Now that Republicans are in charge, you can expect them to use the budget process to eliminate funding for the Obama Administration's signature competitive grant programs, which it has used to push its education reform agenda, including Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and the Innovation in Education Fund (i3).  

The Republican Party is also likely to pass new school choice legislation. Senator Alexander introduced a bill this year that would have allowed states to combine most of their federal education dollars into a block grant that could be used to support low income students in public or private schools. The senator also introduced a charter school bill that was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives that would allow states to use additional federal funds to replicate successful charter schools.

Until the next Congress begins in January, the current balance of power is still in place. Unfortunately, there is one last policy item that still needs to be finished before the end of the year; passing a budget to fund the government for the remainder of the current fiscal year that began October 1. The government is currently operating under a short-term funding mechanism called a Continuing Resolution (CR) untilDecember 11If Congress does not pass legislation by this deadline the government will be forced to shutdown, repeating a scenario from 2013.

Negotiators are working to pass a bill that will keep the government running for the remainder of the fiscal year, but some ultra conservative Republicans are threatening to disrupt these efforts if the President takes expected action to reform the U.S. immigration system without congressional approval.   

Republican leaders have expressed their desire to avoid another government shutdown. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the incoming Majority Leader of the Senate stated, "Let me make it clear: There will be no government shutdowns." 

It is important for Congress to pass a full-year spending bill so that it can make individual funding decisions about programs, including the Magnet Schools Assistance Program. 

Please take time to visit our Grassroots Action Center to encourage your elected officials to pass legislation to fund the government and magnet schools in your community. Please show your support today!

New Priorities for Federal Grant Competitions Expands the Definition of “Promoting Diversity” in Schools

On June 24, the Federal Register published Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s proposed supplemental priorities for use in discretionary grant programs. The 15 priorities are intended to shape the development of federal grant competitions and replace the previous supplemental list established in 2010. “The new priorities and definitions reflect the lessons learned from implementing discretionary grant programs using the 2010 Supplemental Priorities, our current policy objectives, and emerging needs in education” states Duncan’s notice.

The notice includes new points of emphases in promoting student achievement and college and career outcomes. Personalized learning, which has been a central point of the Race to the Top district competitions, is its own priority, as is the development of non-cognitive skills that promote student engagement and motivation. Three of the proposed priorities also address access and completion of postsecondary education and job readiness. Meanwhile, an area of focus that was present in the 2010 priorities on “building capacity for systemic continuous improvement” has been removed. This included priorities for projects using data-based decision-making, showing evidence of effectiveness, and increasing productivity.

Other areas of the 2010 priorities have been incorporated as revisions. Parent, family, and community engagement was previously addressed under improving school climate and behavioral supports, but it is a separate priority in the new list. Improving teacher and principal effectiveness was also separated in order to allow projects to provide more targeted support to each group.

Another priority that was revised from the 2010 version was on “Promoting Diversity”. The Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC) writes that since its inclusion in the 2010 priorities, the diversity priority “has not appeared in most competitive grant funding notices, with the exception of the charter school notices, where it has been a fairly weak incentive, as compared to program incentives to maximize the number of low income children.” It cites examples in which economic factors have superseded racial diversity in importance – a notice for the “Charter Schools Program Grants for Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools” assigned twice as many points to applications serving a student body that is at least 60% low-income than to those that met the diversity priority. Furthermore, the 2010 diversity priority has been absent from Investing in Innovation, various Race to the Top competitions, the School Improvement Grants Program, and the ESEA waiver process. Only the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) has highlighted diversity, but with smaller budgets compared to Race to the Top and the Charter Schools Program, its effectiveness is limited.

Such a focus on socioeconomic factors was reflected in June’s updated priorities, and increasing diversity in the K-12 sector now includes decreasing racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic isolation. However, members of the National Coalition on School Diversity (NCSD), including PRRAC and MSA, expressed concern that this may shift attention away from racial diversity in favor of only socioeconomic diversity. “[E]fforts to promote racial and economic diversity should go hand in hand. We think it is essential that the Department keep these closely related concepts linked in the final priorities, and not permit grantees to avoid racial diversity in favor of economic integration alone,” they wrote in a letter to Secretary Duncan that outlines their comments and proposed changes to the new priority’s text.

The concerning excerpt in the recent proposal states that projects must decrease “the racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic isolation of students”, so they recommend that the wording be changed from or to and to indicate the salience of both racial and economic segregation. “Economic diversity is related to and complementary to racial integration in schools, but the two goals are not interchangeable,” writes PRAAC in an email update. Another suggested edit is to include the adverb “significantly” for increasing diversity and decreasing isolation to require from projects more than just a minimal effort to fulfill the priority. Additionally, the letter proposes that the priority state the reduction of segregation as an explicitly stated criterion. Such changes to bring precision to the text would ensure that it is effective in promoting diversity.

The Federal Register is no longer accepting comments regarding the proposed priorities, but the full list may be found here [http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2014-06-24/pdf/2014-14671.pdf]

FCC Moves to Modernize E-Rate Program and Increase Wi-Fi Connectivity in Schools and Libraries

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a modernization plan for the federal E-Rate program, which provides financial support for communication services and Internet access in schools and public libraries. The modernization, led by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, is the first update of the E-Rate program since its creation in 1996 as a part of the Telecommunications Act. It has been responsible for drastically raising the percentage of classrooms that are now connected to the internet from 14% to 94% and the percentage of public libraries that offer public internet access to 98%.

While E-Rate is widely considered a success, it has not kept pace with the speed of technological change. Today, three out of five schools lack the Wi-Fi that is required by modern educational tools, such as laptops and tablets. For instance, only 5% of schools and 1% of libraries have received E-Rate support to install Wi-Fi, according to Chairman Wheeler. Furthermore, half of our schools rely on slow internal wiring that cannot carry data at today’s broadband speeds.

The E-Rate modernization has three main components to meet modern connectivity demands:

1) Close the Wi-Fi gap. The reform commits at least $1 billion in 2015 and again in 2016 for technological assistance that will allow schools and libraries to transition to high-speed broadband services and away from older dial-up and Ethernet connections. It will also ensure funding predictability for widespread distribution of support, particularly for schools in rural and high-poverty areas.

2) Make E-Rate dollars go further. The program updates will focus on processes that will lower prices and increase transparency about how program aid is spent. Additionally, for every dollar that is spent by our nation’s poorest schools on Wi-Fi, E-Rate promises to also spend four.

3) Simplify the application process to increase schools’ and districts’ access to the program. This includes processes for multi-year applications and discount calculations and expedited reviews of all applications.

The program updates that were passed on July 11 differ slightly from Chairman Wheeler’s original proposal. In the face of opposition from two Republican commissioners and education groups, funding for Wi-Fi infrastructure and upgrades is ensured for only two years rather than five. The commission also did not approve an increase of the cap of available Wi-Fi funding that was sought by many stakeholders.

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), an education-tech nonprofit, and the National Education Association (NEA) expressed their support for the E-Rate modernization, but remain wary of the amount of funding that will be available to schools through the program. “Shifting our goals to establish Wi-Fi in targeted school districts, without increasing the cap, could undermine the historical importance and significance of the E-Rate Program,” wrote former NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) also pointed to the E-Rate funding cap in their analysis of the program with Education SuperHighway. They cited that despite the $2 billion promised to Wi-Fi connectivity for the next two years, evidence shows that the program is still billions of dollars short in meeting schools’ actual needs. Additionally, Manish Naik, the Manager of Legislative Services for the Council of the Great City Schools, argued in Urban Educator that the 4 to 1 matching program will double the financial cost of connectivity for high poverty districts rather than help them.

Nonetheless, the E-Rate modernization remains important in addressing the connectivity issues faced by schools. “No modern business expects to function without access to high-speed internet. So why should we expect it of our schools?” said Bob Wise, the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “The E-Rate program has been remarkably effective, but like an old cellphone, it is in need of an upgrade. In today’s world, reliable Wi-Fi is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

To learn more about the changes to the E-Rate program please read this FCC Fact Sheet.

Civil Rights and Equity in Education: Comprehensive Survey Shows Wide Disparities

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released the results of its first comprehensive look at civil rights data in public education in nearly 15 years. The Civil Rights Data Collection consists of information from all of the nation’s 97,000 public schools and 16,500 school districts. This data was collected during the 2011-2012 school year and allows the department to enforce civil rights laws and ascertain whether students have equal access to educational opportunities. For the first time, it also includes data on early education and school discipline practices.

The survey is not flawless because schools and districts self-report this information; nevertheless, the comprehensiveness of the survey is helpful. Its findings paint a bleak picture of educational equity in the United States. It shows that many schools and districts lack basic preschool programs, core courses in math and science (such as algebra, chemistry, biology, physics, and calculus), and in the schools that do offer advanced classes, the number of minority students taking these classes remains very low.

"This data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places that are delivering on the promise of an equal education for every child and places where the largest gaps remain. In all, it is clear that the United States has a great distance to go to meet our goal of providing opportunities for every student to succeed," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The report has many important findings:

  • Unequal Access to Preschool Programs – 40% of the nation’s school districts do not offer preschool programs. Extensive research shows that quality early childhood education is a predictor of later academic success, yet much of the country does not provide this vital opportunity to children. Of the districts that do offer preschool programs, 57% of them are only half day programs. This deprives children of valuable learning time and causes difficulties for working parents.

  • Suspension and Retention Rates for Minorities - Black children make up 18% of the preschool student body, yet they account for 42% of suspensions, and while boys comprise of 54% of the preschool enrollment, they make up 79% percent of suspended students. Minority females are also more likely to be suspended than white females. Once children reach kindergarten, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander, and Alaskan Native children are held back at twice the rate of their white peers. This is an indication that without high quality preschool education these minority children enter elementary school unprepared for kindergarten.

  • Lack of Courses Needed for College - Only 50% of U.S. high schools offer calculus, and other courses needed for high-demand STEM jobs, such as physics and chemistry. These courses are often prerequisites for college admissions and students that don’t have access to these classes have their college options severely limited. Over 70% of white students attend schools with a full range of math and science courses, but only 47% of Native American and Alaskan-Native, 57% of black students, and 67% of Hispanic students have this same opportunity. Minorities are also underrepresented among students who take gifted and talented or Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Of students taking at least one AP course, 37% of them are Black and 5% of them are English language learners. Furthermore, only 1% of the English language learners who take the AP test receive a qualifying score of 3 or higher.

  • Distribution of qualified teachers and school counselors - Black students are more than four times as likely as their white peers to attend a school where less than 80% of teachers meet certification requirements. Hispanic students are twice as likely to attend such a school. Without highly qualified teachers, especially in key subjects, students have difficulty mastering the material needed to prepare them for college. Moreover, only one in five high schools has school counselors on staff. This hampers the ability of students to understand their career and college options after high school.

You can review all of the data collection findings on the Office for Civil Rights website. The department has also created an online database that allows you to search through this information by state, school, and district. In addition, the Assistant Secretary for the Office for Civil Rights, Catherine Lhamon will discuss the Civil Rights Data Collection during our national conference in Hartford on Saturday, May 17.

President's FY 2015 Budget Makes Critical Investments in Education, But Neglects Magnet School Funding

President Obama released his FY 2015 budget laying out the administration’s funding prerogatives for the next fiscal year beginning October 1, 2014. Like every presidential budget, this is a political document that sets the stage for what the president envisions for the country. Ultimately, it is up to Congress to review the budget and decide how to allocate funds for all federal programs through the appropriations process. The entire budget is approximately $3.9 trillion and includes $564 billion in deficit spending, which adds to our accumulating national debt. The White House projects, however, that the deficit will be 3.1 percent of GDP in 2015, which is a six-year low.

To support our nation’s educational system, the president’s budget would allocate $68.8 billion for the U.S. Department of Education or a $1.3 billion increase above FY 2014. This was one of only two cabinet agencies to receive a funding increase in the budget. A majority of the department’s funding, approximately three-fourths, will go toward financial aid for college students, special education programs, and disadvantaged students through Title I grants. The president’s budget also makes continued investments in signature programs, such as Race to the Top (RTT), Investing in Innovation (i3), School Improvement Grants (SIG), Promise Neighborhoods, and the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF).

Unfortunately, the president's budget does not provide additional support for the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), which helps schools districts create magnet programs that promote school integration and systemic educational reforms. It also fails to provide relief from cuts that were implemented to the program over the last few years through sequestration. If enacted, the budget would provide only $91.6 million for MSAP, which is down from the 2010 level of $100 million. Read MSA’s statement opposing these cuts

On a more positive note, there are other proposals in the president’s budget that may help magnet schools. The White House proposes $300 million for a new iteration of Race to the Top that will focus on Equity and Opportunity. If enacted, it would create incentives for states and local school districts to identify and close opportunity and achievement gaps among minority and disadvantaged students. Funds would support strategies that mitigate the effects of concentrated poverty, such as expanded learning time, access to rigorous coursework, and comprehensive student supports. Grants would also help enhance data systems that allow states and school districts to focus on the greatest disparities and invest in strong teachers and leaders in high-need schools.

The president’s budget calls for $150 million for a new High School Redesign initiative to help schools implement new curricula and instruction that prepares high school students for college and in-demand careers. This program will also support partnerships between high schools and employers. This year, the administration made an initial investment towards this effort through the Youth Career Connect Grant program. Magnet schools are leaders in developing these types of partnerships and should view this as future opportunity.

The White House budget proposes $170 million to help transform Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S.T.E.M) instruction and to meet the president's goal of recruiting 100,000 S.T.E.M. teachers over the next ten years. President Obama calls for more streamlined S.T.E.M. funds that can be used to improve S.T.E.M. education at all levels and the inclusion of more minorities and women in S.T.E.M. professions. The budget would also invest in S.T.E.M. innovation networks to connect school districts with local, regional and national resources and a new S.T.E.M. Master Teacher Corps.

Additionally, President Obama's budget allocates funds to make high-quality pre-kindergarten education available to all four year olds from low and middle income families. It calls for $1.3 billion in mandatory spending next year and $75 billion over the next decade. Funds will be used to create quality preschools and expanded full-day kindergarten programs through federal and state partnerships. Preschool Development grants will also receive $500 million in the budget as well.

To train teachers to use new technology in the classroom, the president’s FY 2015 budget allocates $200 million for ConnectEDucators. This money would fund formula-based state leadership grants to support the transition to digital learning as well as competitive 3-year grants to assist school districts with technology integration and instruction plans. The Department of Education will give priority to applicants who plan to work with other school districts and local or national organizations.

To learn more about the president’s budget visit the U.S. Department of Education’s budget webpage. It includes detailed funding information for all federal education programs and provides explanations for all the president’s new initiatives.

Why Hartford?

When thinking of places to learn about the opportunities presented by student diversity, Hartford, Connecticut may not come immediately to mind, but it should. The events that have taken place in Hartford starting with a 1989 state court case, have led to one of the most successful remedies for the de facto segregation that remained after the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education. While by no means perfect, the success in Hartford provides a wealth of information and ideas, and can serve as a great resource to help combat this problem that still exists in many metropolitan cities and suburbs around the country. Magnet Schools of America's newest board member, Susan Eaton, recently published a report about the success of Hartford's interdistrict magnet programs. Below are some of the highlights of her research.

The Brown v. Board of Education decision paved the way for the removal of enforced and intentional segregation, particularly in the South. However, after the ruling, there remained de facto segregation, predominantly in the North, which was a lot harder for civil rights lawyers to remove. In an attempt to remove this sort of segregation in Hartford and the surrounding region, in 1989 a racially diverse group of 19 schoolchildren and their parents jointly filed a lawsuit claiming that racial and class segregation in the region's public schools denied students the "substantially equal education" that was required by the state's Constitution, the case was Sheff v. O'Neill. Sheff's lawyers argued that "the condition of racial and ethnic segregation cut off white students and students of color from necessary, vital exposure to other cultures, experiences, and knowledge. Racial and ethnic segregation's attendant-concentrated poverty- the lawyers argued, “overwhelmed even the best Hartford educators who worked in schools with hallmark symptoms of profound, chronic institutional disadvantage: constant disruptions, neglect, instability, and stress."

In 1996, Connecticut’s highest court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The court found that the school district’s borders themselves, which lined up with established racially segregated housing patterns, had created race and class isolation. The court ordered lawmakers to find a solution to reduce the racial and ethnic segregation in Greater Hartford’s public schools.  It turned out that the district borders would prove difficult to change, but over time schools were built and programs were created to make crossing those borders easier.

Many people doubted whether many white families in the suburbs, with access to some of the best schools in the state, would bus their kids into Hartford, regardless of how good the new schools might be. However, those who doubted the program were greatly mistaken. Magnet schools and the Open Choice program are so popular among both urban and suburban parents that demand for them is not being met. As of summer 2012, there were 31 interdistrict magnet schools in the Greater Hartford region, enrolling about 13,000 students. The Open Choice program, which provides transportation for children who live in Hartford to attend suburban schools, enrolls about 1,700 students. Despite the impressive enrollment numbers, data shows that the schools only meet 72% of the demand among Hartford families, and that demand continues to grow.

The increasing demand for these programs is for good reason. A 2009 study compared students who applied to enroll in Connecticut’s magnet schools and were not selected through a blind lottery, and those who were selected and attended a magnet school. The study found that magnet school students who lived in urban zip codes (these students were mostly Latino or black) made greater gains and did significantly better in math and reading in high school and in reading tests in middle school. Also, suburban students (who were mostly white) who attended magnet schools outperformed their peers at traditional suburban schools. The “achievement gap” between white students and students of color also tended to be smaller in magnet schools than in traditional schools.

The study also found that students of color in magnet schools were significantly more likely to say they felt close to white students and had white friends than did students of color who did not attend magnet schools. This also held true for white students in magnet schools, showing that they were significantly more likely than their counterparts in non-magnet schools to say that they were close with students of color, and had students of color as friends.

On top of that, data from 2011 shows that, on average, the region’s 7 interdistrict magnet high schools had significantly higher graduation rates than even some of Hartford’s more affluent suburban districts.  Magnet schools also do a much better job at graduating students from families with low incomes, significantly better than some of the more affluent districts. The graduation rate for low-income students in magnets ranges anywhere from 80% to above 90%, while graduation rates of low-income students in Hartford were about 60% in 2011 and 53% in 2010.

These results are powerful, and hold parallels and lessons for cities around the country suffering from similar problems. For a more in-depth look at the success in Hartford be sure to read Susan Eaton’s piece in the Abell Report and her corresponding radio interview where she discusses the Connecticut experience and what it means for other school districts.

Immigration Bill Creates New Funding for STEM Programs

The U.S. Senate recently passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that will provide a path toward citizenship for undocumented workers or illegal immigrants by a rarely seen bipartisan vote of 68-32. While there was significant discussion surrounding the various measures put in place to physically secure the border, there is also a portion of the bill that is extremely important for the education community. Tucked away, nearly 900 pages into the 1,200 page bill, is a section about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (S.T.E.M.) education.

STEM education has been a popular topic in Washington for the past couple of years, and multiple bills were proposed during the last session of Congress that included STEM visa provisions. One of the biggest problems with STEM education has been that there has been a significant lack of U.S. graduates in STEM fields. A Microsoft study released this year found that the U.S. is on pace to graduate 50,000 students with a bachelor’s degree in computer science over the next 10 years, while jobs in that field are estimated to be twice that number.

The bill seeks to solve the short-term lack of qualified workers in STEM fields by increasing the number of H-1B visas that are available, which are generally granted to highly educated and specialized professional workers. Most H-1B visa holders typically work in STEM related fields. According to a Congressional Research Service report, in 2010 almost 91,000 H-1B workers were employed in computer-related occupations, making up 47% of all H-1B beneficiaries that year. By increasing the number of these types of visas, the hope is that the short-term needs of STEM employers can be met and these jobs can stay in the U.S., even though they won’t be filled by Americans.

Many companies, especially those in Silicon Valley, stand to benefit enormously from the increase in visas. These high tech companies argue that it is extremely costly to retrain older Americans with the skills needed for new and emerging jobs, and that the country is simply not producing enough younger Americans with the skills needed for these in-demand jobs. Increasing H-1B visas will give these companies access to more highly qualified candidates with the desired skillset. However, this increase in H-1B visas has drawn considerable criticism from many groups, including labor unions, which state that companies simply want to depress wages and hire less costly temporary workers from overseas.

Despite the logical arguments on both sides, reality is more complicated. A recent study  by the Brookings Institution found that in the top ten cities with the highest number of H-1B visa holders, college educated Americans in these cities are, in fact, no more likely to be unemployed. Another study actually suggests that the growth of foreign workers in American companies actually helps younger Americans, and has no noticeable consequences (good or bad) for older Americans. “In the short run, we don’t really find any adverse or superpositive effect on the employment of Americans,” said William R. Kerr, the Harvard business professor who conducted the study. So while the claims that foreign workers on H-1B visas displace American workers from those jobs may be exaggerated, so may be the claims by companies that are claiming a worker shortage. Most H-1B visa holders actually hold entry-level positions, and many economists say this serves to keep wages down.

While the debate about the effects of the expansion of the H-1B visa program will be prolonged and complicated, the immigration bill provides significant provisions to expand STEM education in the U.S. and allows for more of these jobs to be occupied by Americans in the future. The bill provides $200 million (though some advocates say it could be as much as $700 million) for investments in STEM education generated from fees from the H-1B visas. These funds can be used for a wide array of investments to further STEM education at both the higher education and K-12 level.

For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) would be able to use some of the funds from the visa fees to provide scholarships to low-income students pursuing STEM degrees, as well as provide funds for loan repayment or forgiveness for these students. The NSF would also be authorized to use some of the funds to improve teacher training in STEM subjects, support professional development of K-12 STEM teachers in the use of technology in the classroom, and establish partnerships with institutions of higher learning and professional organizations. The bill also establishes a ‘STEM education and Training Account’, which disburses funds to states and territories for the purposes of expanding STEM education programs around the country.

The whole goal of these provisions is to instill an appreciation and fascination with STEM subjects in kids while they are still young, as well as provide them with a high quality STEM education. By doing this, as these students begin to apply to college, more and more of them will pursue degrees in STEM subjects. This is an investment whose return will not be visible for many years, but it is one worth making nonetheless. Ensuring that our students are not passed up for jobs here in the U.S. needs to be a national priority, and this increase in investment, especially at the K-12 level, is a crucial step in the right direction.

While this legislation has surpassed a major hurdle in the U.S. Senate, it must still be passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is controlled by the Republican Party. The Speaker of the House, John Boehner, said his chamber would not consider and vote on the Senate bill, and instead will work on separate legislation that reflects the, “will of our majority and the will of the American people."

Congressional Republicans have already expressed opposition to the Senate bill because it would grant illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, which they believe encourages further illegal immigration.
Supporters of the Senate bill consider this provision a crucial part of the legislation.  As the demographic makeup of the U.S. becomes increasingly diverse, segments of the electorate, especially Hispanic voters will hold more sway in elections putting greater pressure on both parties to reach some sort of agreement on immigration reform, even if that means handing the president another legislative victory.

Senate Takes First Stab at ESEA Reauthorization 

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee approved the Strengthening America’s Schools Act, a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind. The bill was proposed by committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and had the support of all Democrats on the committee, but no Republicans. The ranking Republican, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, instead proposed his own alternative bill, which was voted down on a party-line vote. Check out this chart comparing the two bills and how they would change the current law. The Harkin bill would reauthorize the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), and also add magnet schools as an acceptable restart strategy for low-performing schools. Read MSA’s statement of support for the legislation here.

The hearing tone echoed the partisan nature of the two competing bills and almost every amendment either passed or failed along party lines. As Sen. Harkin said, “I think what we’ve seen is: There are differences on both sides...” but “That’s what makes for a vibrant democracy.” While many differences remain between the Democrats and Republicans in terms of policy, one thing that both sides agree on is where the bill should go from here. Both Harkin and Alexander said that they would like to see the bill advance to the floor this year. 

This is the second attempt by the committee in the past two years to renew ESEA. The last attempt took place in the fall of 2011, but never made it to the floor, despite having support from three Republicans. One difference between this attempt and the attempt in 2011 was the amount of energy, and in fact, the number of senators in the room. The attendance of the senators became such an issue, that before the lunch break on the second day of committee markup, Sen. Harkin actually yelled at Senate staffers, telling them to make sure their bosses were back after lunch since only five senators were present at the time, not close to a quorum for a vote. 

During the markup, there was some lively debate on the amendments. Most notably, one proposed by Sen. Alexander that would have removed “comparability” language from the bill, and instead would have allowed Title I dollars for disadvantaged kids to follow them to the public school of their choosing. Salary comparability is way to ensure that Title I schools that have many new, lower paid teachers get their fair share of Title I funding. Currently, districts don’t have to count teacher’s actual salaries when distributing local funds; instead they simply have to make sure that all teachers are on the same pay scale. This in essence, punishes high poverty schools, which usually employ a large number of novice teachers. The threat of the removal of this language in the bill prompted an emotional response from Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Col.), one of the authors of the comparability provision, who pounded the table and proclaimed that without it, Title I should be renamed the “increase the achievement gap title” so that we are being honest with ourselves. The Democrats were able to defeat the Alexander amendment, and the comparability language remains in the bill as it hopefully makes its way to the floor. 

Another interesting debate centered on the Obama administration’s use of waivers. Currently, 37 states and the District of Columbia are operating under NCLB waivers. These waivers grant states exemptions from certain provisions of NCLB in exchange for adopting certain reforms and conditions set forth by the administration and Department of Education. The main provision that states have sought exemption from is the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirement, which mandates that every student is proficient in reading and math by 2014 or face sanction and possibly closure. Under the current law, 40% of schools in Virginia were considered failing in 2010 and 91% of schools in D.C. failed to meet their targets.  

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) proposed an amendment that would have made it very clear that the Secretary of Education could not offer conditional waivers, which would have undermined the administration’s entire waiver program. The debate regarding this amendment turned into a competition between Sen. Roberts, and his colleague Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina to see who had the largest binder containing their state’s waiver application. Sen. Scott joked that his application had originally been used as a 50-pound weight, but now it is a 100-pound one. 

So where does reauthorization go from here? Given the fact that both Senators Harkin and Alexander have stated that they would like to see the bill reach the Senate floor, there is a good chance that will occur. This is important since the last time the Senate considered an ESEA reauthorization bill was NCLB in 2001. However, it is very unlikely that we will see some sort of legislation that is ready for the president’s signature. The House ESEA reauthorization bill put forth by House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R.-MN) has very little in common with the Senate bill, making it unlikely that these two pieces of legislation could be reconciled into something that could be sent to the president. So it seems as though Sen. Scott will continue his workout for a little bit longer.