The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act on Oct. 20 by a bipartisan vote of 15 to 7. This legislation, which overhauls the No Child Left Behind Act, will now be sent to the full Senate for consideration.
Sen. Bernie Sanders voted in favor of moving this bill out of committee and believes there are significant provisions in the bill which are an improvement on the current law.
Over the past several years, Sen. Sanders has held numerous town meetings to hear directly from Vermonters all across the state about NCLB and about how our educational system is working in Vermont. A great many teachers, parents, and principals attended these meetings and let the senator know what was wrong with NCLB and changes they thought should be made. A clear and recurrent focus was that current law requires schools to focus on teaching to the test and requires practices that are punitive to students, teachers and schools.
The most punitive and restrictive requirements of No Child Left Behind are removed from this bill. This new legislation eliminates the "adequate yearly progress" requirement so that there is less pressure to "teach to the test." It supports states, like Vermont, that have adopted the Common Core Standards so students are taught the skills they need to be in college and career ready. This bill also allows for greater state and local flexibility, allowing many of the most important decisions affecting our schools to be made by Vermonters and not the federal government. Federal involvement is instead focused on the schools with the greatest needs.
One of Sen. Sanders' top priorities was to provide more support for expanding the school day and year. Longer school days allow for a richer and more varied curriculum, as well as allowing for activities which keep students interested in going to school. Summer learning addresses the debilitating fact that students from low-income families lose 30 percent of what they had learned the previous year during the extended summer recess, when that learning is not reinforced by continuing learning. One of the important aspects of this new legislation is that it opens up funding for expanding the school day and year, including summer learning. The legislation incorporates much of the language about expanded learning which Sen. Sanders wrote, as well as language he supported which allows for funding to be used for professional development for early learning educators. His amendments to better support at-risk students and out-of- school youth were also included in the bill.
In addition, the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act:
• Allows for states to measure student growth in order to provide a better measure of student achievement.
• Allows states to measure student performance in more than two subject areas so that schools can broaden their teaching focus to assure emphasis on such subjects as civics, science, social studies and the arts.
• Targets funding to recruit and prepare teachers for high-need subjects like math and science.
• Targets funding to activities that promote safe and healthy schools.
• Directs federal resources to help chronically struggling schools and those with significant achievement gaps turn themselves around.
There are, however, still improvements that must be made to this bill when it comes to the floor of the Senate. Sen. Sanders will likely introduce an amendment to ensure all children have access to high-quality early learning programs so they enter school prepared to succeed. He will also strongly oppose amendments that seek to continue the use of single, narrow measurements of student achievement. He will also oppose efforts to privatize America's schools.