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Moving Beyond the Rhetoric: How Congress Can Move a Balanced Federal Approach in ESEA Reauthorization

This month, the House and Senate both introduced Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization proposals, spurring a party-line debate on the federal role in education, with Republicans mainly supporting flexible formula funds to states and Democrats mainly embracing formula funds with more standards, reporting, accountability, and improvement provisions attached, as well as federal competitive grants (an interesting turn of events).

Last Thursday (June 13), the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee passed an ESEA bill largely following the Democrats’ approach. Yesterday (June 19), the House Education and Workforce Committee approved a bill that takes the Republicans' approach. Neither action is surprising.

However, as Senator Alexander said at the Senate markup, in order to get a bill that will survive conference with the House, the sides will all have to come closer together. Despite some oversimplified political rhetoric on “mandates vs. freedom” in Congress this month, we hope ESEA will ultimately embrace both a federal formula funding approach, with reasonable reporting, accountability and improvement expectations, as well as competitive grants to promote innovation, equity, and scaling what works.

Scaling Early College Designs can provide a window into the importance of a comprehensive federal approach.

1) Formula programs: Formula funds such as Title I of ESEA provide flexibility to implement activities that complement state, district, or school reform plans, with the expectation of improved outcomes, particularly for low-income students and underrepresented students. A state or district might use Title I and Title II funds to support an initiative expanding early college high schools and related professional development activities. In fact, Senator Franken’s (D-MN) and Representative Heck's (R-NV) amendments on early college and dual enrollment strategies, which would encourage states and districts to smartly use existing funds, have both passed with virtually no opposition. The same is true of Representative George Miller’s (D-CA) substitute amendment (ultimately not accepted), which encouraged early college and dual enrollment through school improvement, STEM, and accountability provisions.

Accountability for key indicators of college and career readiness—like college credits earned, cohort graduation rates, and state assessments results—would also shine a light across many schools,  communities, and groups of students. All of the ESEA proposals released would encourage using formula funds to improve college and career readiness, although accountability and reporting structures could be improved in all of them. 

2) Competitive funds: Competitive funding is a critical complement to formula funds because it can often spur deeper work to spread strategies with a strong evidence base to communities that might not otherwise have such opportunities, and it can also help us learn from promising innovations.

For example, the Pathways to College section of Senator Harkin’s bill would provide competitive funding that assists districts and partners to seed and scale proven early college high schools, dual enrollment opportunities, and career-related education pathways. Through its competitive grant criteria, the proposal will help spread and ensure fidelity to effective, research-backed college- and career-readiness models, like early college, in communities serving low-income and underrepresented students. The nation can then learn from the scaling process, further refine what works, and spur new innovations. This is at the heart of all competitive funding.

This combined approach would allow for Republican and Democratic ideals to both live within ESEA (though we seem far from that “kumbaya” moment right now), while also furthering the knowledge and spread of what works for all students nationwide.

ESEA must also encourage systemic thinking across education programs to encourage adoption of what works. Good examples from markup include the Franken and Heck amendments on dual enrollment and early college, and Senator Baldwin’s amendment to aligning reporting on credential-attainment across ESEA and Perkins Career and Technical Education (with Senator Burr’s input). Both of these are strong displays of ways the legislation can help align purposes to meet student needs and economic needs across major education programs.

We hope the combination of these federal approaches will be a part of the continuing ESEA debates. Now is the time to further a federal role that builds on the strengths of our states and communities, and facilitates public information on progress while advancing discoveries and growing what works for students nationwide, including low-income and underrepresented students.