Education bill to allow more local control

BOB BECKSTEAD Students at Madison Elementary School recite an apple poem for their family members in October.

The tenor is hopeful for a new federal bill that could help schools and allow New York to change controversial education policies.

The House of Representatives passed with a 359-64 vote the All Students Succeed Act, which would pare back federal control over education policies.

“I have spent the year working with my colleagues on the committee gathering feedback from students, parents, teachers and administrators and heard about the importance of updating our early and secondary education law. This has been a consistent theme as I’ve visited schools across the district,” said Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Willsboro, who voted to pass the new bill. “This is bipartisan, bicameral legislation that is needed to give power back to state and local governments.”

The bill, if it passes in the Senate and is signed by President Barack Obama, would be the first reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since the controversial No Child Left Behind Act was enacted 14 years ago.

“Reauthorization has been a long time coming,” said Massena Central School District Superintendent Patrick H. Brady. “Without a waiver, we would still be following No Child Left Behind, which was bad.”

Mr. Brady said No Child Left Behind was too punitive to districts.

“What we had were just a bunch of costly widespread interventions and it didn’t really help improve student achievement,” the superintendent said. “What was needed was more targeted interventions for failing schools, not all schools.”

Education officials agreed the new bill would address concerns about the one-size-fits-all, top-down approach to creating education standards.

“This gives states the freedom to have the talks about controversial education policies and to decide what the state education system should look like,” said Stephen J. Todd, superintendent of the Jefferson-Lewis-Hamilton-Herkimer-Oneida Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

“It was important to me that this legislation address significant concerns that I share with my constituents with Common Core,” Ms. Stefanik said.

As part of this paring back of federal power, the bill would prohibit the Secretary of Education from pushing the Common Core standards on states.

“It will be interesting to see the bill language, because the devil is in the details, but it seems to me the bill restores the common sense in No Child Left Behind,” said St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES Superintendent Thomas R. Burns. “No Child Left Behind was well intentioned but some of its points were unrealistic.”

He cited a goal in the current law that required all students be proficient in math by 2014.

“That was just unrealistic,” Mr. Burns said.

One of the highlights in the new bill, Mr. Burns said, is the watering down of federal accountability measures.

However, Mr. Brady said he is concerned that the bill would require the state to set up an accountability system for districts that don’t meet the minimum 95 percent participation rate for the standardized tests.

Massena saw above-average opt-out rates for the St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES region last year, with 40 percent of students not taking the math exams and 26 percent not taking the English Language Arts exams.

“How this will affect us in the future, we’ll have to wait and see,” Mr. Brady said. “We will have to work to provide the state with input on how to proceed.”

Mr. Burns also said it’s important that the bill does not require eighth graders taking high school algebra to take both the eighth-grade proficiency exam and the Regents, as well as allowing states to move toward conducting all standardized tests on computers.

“New York already has an initiative to achieve that goal by 2020,” Mr. Burns said.

Like with any bipartisan agreement, there are people who still have concerns about the new bill.

“It’s not a bill that everyone is thrilled with, but it is something we can all live with,” Mr. Todd said.

Education advocates were disappointed that the bill did not reduce the number of standardized tests students in grades three through eight are required to take.

“I was hoping the bill would roll back testing to a time when we tested grades four, eight and students in high school,” Mr. Brady said. “I think that is going to continue to be an issue.”

But this bill could open the gate for state officials to start talking about reducing the amount of testing.

“I would like to see the state follow through,” said James Kettrick, superintendent of Indian River Central School District.

The district, as well as others in the tri-county area, could see some funding benefits from the new bill.

The bill would require timely payments of impact aid money to districts and also would provide certainty to schools through level funding of the program.

Impact aid, which helps districts affected by federal lands including army bases, is an important revenue stream for the Indian River district because 65 percent of its students come from military families.

“I think it acknowledges the importance impact aid has on districts like ours,” Mr. Kettrick said.

While negotiations for crafting the bill were still happening, there were talks about a possible reduction in title funding, which helps districts with large populations of high-needs students.

The funding is important to the Massena district, Mr. Brady said.

Massena Central receives Title I, II and VI funding totaling $1,173,094.

The bill did not ultimately cut back title funding.

“I think the timing for this bill is favorable and parallels what is being talked about at the state level,” Mr. Burns said.

The superintendent said this could be an answer to persistent concerns from parents and educators about the punitive measures and “over-testing” that are part of the current law.

“This is the federal government creating some latitude for the state to create a better testing and education system,” Mr. Burns said.

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