Congress Poised for a Vote on Education Reform This Fall

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Congress Poised for a Vote on Education Reform This Fall

The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have each passed versions of bills that have the potential to vastly change public education for children who are differently-abled, including those with Down syndrome. Here’s what parents and advocates need to know.

Since 2007, Congress has been looking to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a law that has existed since 1965 but was most recently reauthorized in 2002 as the No Child Left Behind Act. Widely unpopular, No Child Left Behind has been criticized for taking an outdated approach to education and for applying federally mandated, one-size-fits-all teaching and accountability standards that don’t work for all children.

In July 2015, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 5, the Student Success Act (SSA), and the Senate passed the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA) as answers to the problems of No Child Left Behind. Both bills would give states and individual schools more control over teaching standards and hold them more accountable for student success.

The Senate’s ECAA passed with a strongly bipartisan vote of 81-17, while the House’s more partisan SSA barely passed with a vote of 218-213. Although SSA had strong Republican support, no Democrats voted for it.

The Title I Debate

One of the biggest differences between the two bills is Title I portability, or how schools receive funding for students who are differently-abled.

Title I is the section of ESEA that requires schools to provide a high-quality education to children “at a significant disadvantage,” whether physical, developmental, or socioeconomic. The title outlines standards schools must meet so these disadvantaged students achieve the same academic standards as their peers. It’s also the section of ESEA that defines failing or low-achieving schools.

The federal government allocates a certain amount of money each school year, known as Title I funds, to help schools meet these requirements and also avoid earning a failing grade. Title I funds must be used for very specific purposes and, depending on the school, may be used only for designated groups of students. Currently, those funds are distributed to districts that serve a high number of students with special needs, a classification that includes students who are differently-abled and those with Down syndrome.

The Senate’s ECAA doesn’t include any changes to this funding structure, but the House’s SSA does. Under the SSA’s proposals, instead of being calculated based on the number of such students in a school district, the funds would be calculated based on how many attend a given school. That money would also become portable — if a student changed schools, the money allocated for him or her under Title I would follow.

Democrats oppose this, arguing that Title I funds would wind up in well-performing schools and leave poorly performing schools without the money they need to improve. Republicans see Title I portability as a way to grant parents more choice in what school their child attends and as a solution to some of the barriers schools face in how those funds are used.

Read More: A History of Down Syndrome Human and Civil Rights

Improvements Possible With Both Bills

Despite the disagreement over Title I funding, both bills are viewed as an improvement over the current ESEA. In addition to giving states and local school districts accountability for student success, the bills:
• Require states to set levels of achievement for all students, including those who are differently-abled; the SSA would let states set one single achievement standard for all students, while the ECAA would charge states with developing low, middle, and high level standards.
• Include students who are differently-abled in mandated reading, math, and science assessments
• Allow states to develop their own teacher evaluation programs and provide resources to improve the professional development of teachers

What’s Next?

This fall a conference committee will try to reconcile the two bills into one. Legal experts believe the ECAA stands the greatest chance of becoming law. However, the White House, civil rights groups, education associations, and key politicians all want to make changes to the way ECAA handles accountability before taking the next step — and Republicans say they will not support a reauthorization of ESEA without Title I portability.

Follow Global Down Syndrome Foundation on Facebook and Twitter for the latest developments on ESEA reform. You can also follow the conversation on social media using #ESEA, #ECAA, and #HR5.

 

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