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DC Update: August 1, 2015
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Congress a Step Closer to ESEA Finale

Congress has been working to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently known as No Child Left Behind) since 2007, the year in which the bill should have seen action. In July the House and the Senate each passed its version of a renewed law, with some major differences between the two bills. The next step in the process is to appoint a conference committee of House and Senate members charged with negotiating each difference in the two bills. The resulting package will be voted on by each chamber and ultimately sent to the president.

Despite the differences in the two bills, both have one overarching theme: reducing the federal footprint in education. The House goes much farther than the Senate by consolidating many smaller targeted grant programs and freezing funding for the life of the bill at the Fiscal Year 2015 (current funding) levels. The Senate maintains a number of the grant programs eliminated in the House bill, most importantly, the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Program (ESSCP), as well grants for physical education, arts education, and after-school programs. The basic structure of current law is maintained in the Senate, while the House bill reiterates throughout the primacy of the States' role in education.

The House Student Success Act (H.R. 5) and the Senate Every Child Achieves Act (S. 1177) eliminate the current "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) provision that required 100 percent proficiency by 2014. AYP became controversial very early on in the implementation of No Child Left Behind, resulting in both bills replacing AYP with State-designed accountability systems.

The two bills address State accountability in different ways, with the House providing fewer parameters than the Senate. That said, both continue to require annual testing as in current law, but allow the use of growth measures. Instead of defining or identifying a specific percentage of "low-performing" schools for specific interventions, each chamber again gives more latitude than current law to the States. The Senate would require States to use certain factors as a "substantial" part of the process of identifying these schools, but allows States to define "substantial." The House tells States to find low-performing schools, again defined by each individual State, and provide interventions, but does not mandate specific interventions. Current law includes very specific levels of intervention and consequences if schools do not achieve.

Both bills also eliminate the "highly qualified teacher" (HQT) provisions. The House bill does not replace HQT with a new structure, while the Senate would require teachers in Title I programs to meet applicable State certification and licensure standards. The Senate also would require States to describe how low-income and minority students in Title I schools are not disproportionately served by ineffective, out of field, or inexperienced teachers.

Current law regarding the frequency of State assessment is maintained in both bills in math, reading/language arts, and science. The House bill allows parents to "opt out" of assessments for their child for any reason, whereas the Senate bill notes nothing in Title I would preempt State or local law regarding parental decisions on participation in assessments.

As for what the testing would look like, both allow the requirement for annual assessment to be met through a single test or through multiple tests during the school year that result in one summative score. The Senate provides a pilot program for up to seven States to try "innovative" assessments such as competency-based cumulative year-end assessments. In addition, the Senate bill requires States to set a limit on the amount of time devoted to State and local assessment administration. The House bill would allow the use of local assessments instead of State tests, if the local tests are State-approved, meet other assessment requirements and provide comparable data across districts. The Senate bill does not specifically allow for the use of local tests.

There are a number of contentious issues that will have to be reconciled between the 600+ page House and the over 1000-page Senate bills. The August congressional recess will provide an opportunity for the staff to start working on resolving differences before the members return in early September to deal with the most difficult issues. There is a good deal of momentum toward getting a final bill some time in the fall, but congressional schedules more than actual work can sometimes dictate how quickly these processes move. SSWAA will be putting together a larger analysis of the pending legislative changes and how the language around school mental health and other student support services could most directly impact the work of school social workers. We keep you posted when the conference committee is appointed and how the major issues are resolved.

Appropriations Process Stuck Again

In its annual budget and funding process, Congress will again push to the brink of government shutdown and will need to pass stopgap measures to keep government agencies running until funding is settled. Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 ends on September 30, 2015, but Congress has not made sufficient progress toward passing the 12 appropriations bills to meet the start of the new fiscal year.

This year marks a new achievement, even though the end game will have to be postponed. For the first time in six years, House and Senate appropriations committees have finished work on all 12 bills. However, there is little or no chance these bills will be finalized before the end of the fiscal year with few legislative days left and Congress gone through the month of August until after Labor Day.

The more serious problem is the tight budget cap imposed on the appropriations subcommittees. The Ryan-Murray budget deal, crafted in 2013 by the chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), provided two years' relief from the full impact of cuts imposed under the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA). However, that deal ends at the start of FY 2016 on October 1, 2015.

The BCA budget caps are slated to shrink each year until 2021. With the Ryan-Murray deal coming to an end, Congress will have to craft another budget compromise in order to escape the harsh cuts resulting from the tight budget caps. If the budget caps are exceeded, that will trigger another sequester (across the board cut).

The president's budget proposal for FY 2016 included funding at the pre-sequester level. However, the budget committees adhered to the BCA cap. Key members of Congress in both parties have stated the budget caps are too low, requiring very deep cuts in many important programs. The only way to resolve this problem is for Congress to pass another deal similar to Ryan-Murray.

There is a strong likelihood such a deal will emerge very late in the year or in early 2016. So now it is simply "watch and wait." Until then Congress will have to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR), a stopgap measure to keep the government operating, which will most likely happen as soon as they return in early September. The question is whether that will be a short-term CR perhaps into December or a longer-term plan that will keep funding at current levels or even reduce it while Congress decides how to resolve the larger budget question.

SSWAA Legislative Advocacy Team
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