• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2000 •
In 1965, the U.S. Congress passed major legislation that, for the first time, provided substantive federal funding to public education. This legislation came to be known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
Over the years, ESEA has been the centerpiece of federal involvement in public education. The act is the federal basis for a number of major programs outlined under various “titles” in the bill. The largest of these programs is Title I, which authorizes the federal compensatory education act. It was renamed “Helping Disadvantaged Children Meet High Standards” in 1995. While Title I is the largest and best known, an array of other federally-funded initiatives are also housed within ESEA.
Every five years, the U.S. Congress revisits the legislation to decide whether or not to keep existing legislation intact or to revise all or portions of it. This process is called “reauthorization.” The 1995 reauthorization – called the Improving America’s Schools Act – included 14 titles (see box below). Congress is currently considering the next ESEA reauthorization.
Although ESEA is broad in scope and coverage, the beginnings of legislative deliberations on these issues have focused on a few key programs. Debates have been held in congressional sub-committees where the chairpersons have discussed how they wish to approach the reauthorization of ESEA. The chairpersons needed to decide whether to handle ESEA as one omnibus bill that includes all of the 14 programs; to break the various components into smaller, distinct legislative proposals; or to consider which programs Congress may wish to delete or significantly modify. Whichever approach is used, early deliberations clearly indicate that major battles will be fought over the nature of Title I – the largest federal education program.
Unfortunately for educators and children, the conflicts over ESEA reauthorization and the billion dollar allocations associated with the package have reduced the debate to a bitter partisan confrontation. Each side is committed to distinct and different agendas that are tied to upcoming national and state election campaigns. The result has been little or no substantive progress to date on most of the major issues incorporated into the reauthorization proposals. Early skirmishes however have provided some insights into the distinctive emphases being promoted by the major parties.
Some legislators are targeting Title I as an area for major reforms with ideas such as reallocating all monies into a federally-funded voucher program that would allow funds to be used to educate eligible children in private and religious schools or creating provisions that would promote “portability” (monies following pupils who chose to transfer from their present neighborhood schools to other school settings).
Issues of how Title I funds will be allocated are also in the center of the debate. Some policy-makers are pushing to have more schools deemed Title I eligible, allowing them to access and use federal Title I funding. Current law requires that the monies be allocated to schools with the highest concentrations of low-income pupils. Proposed reforms would modify the percentages that are used to qualify schools for Title I participation, with the threshold level lowered from 50 percent to 40 percent or below. Advocates of the current formulas express concern that such expansion of eligibility will only serve to dilute available monies and lead to reduced access and weaken the current focus on the neediest schools.
A critical issue surrounding Title I is widespread concern about whether Title I has been effective in significantly improving educational achievement in many of the schools where the money is being allocated. This has led to an expanding emphasis on program accountability. The latest appropriation debate was characterized by this issue and led to an allocation of extra funds to help schools facilitate pupils transferring from low-performing schools to more successful public schools. Because of the large sums of funding allocated to Title I, it is highly unlikely that the demand for improved student performance in Title I programs will subside. Advocates of minority and low-income pupils should be on guard to ensure that, in the needed push for program accountability, responsibility lies with schools, not on the pupils served by the program. Advocates must also ensure that schools are held accountable for improved outcomes and that all pupils acquire access to the instruction and related opportunities to learn that are essential to an acceptable student accountability system.
Students with Limited English Proficiency
In addition to Title I, Congress is locked in bitter battles over the shape and direction of federal bilingual education legislation (Title VII). Many members of Congress are committed to strategies that limit the programs’ scopes and impose different requirements that result in limited use of home languages and burdensome pre-placement requirements not found in comparable programs serving mainstream pupils. Title VII also faces ongoing battles to secure adequate funding and, if secured, to ensure that those monies are allocated to students with the greatest need.
A related debate focuses on professional development of teachers who serve students with limited English proficiency. Conservatives have opposed providing ongoing staff development support from federal sources, while moderates and liberals point to perpetual shortages of adequately-prepared bilingual and English as a second language (ESL) teachers to justify an ongoing federal investment in this area.
Safe and Drug-Free Schools
Title IV (relating to safe ad drug-free schools) had been a point of major debate and was at one time targeted for elimination or at least major renovation by a number of legislators. However, increased media attention to school violence has spurred a renewed push for a federal role in promoting safe and drug-free schools. Given this, the debates have shifted to focus on the nature and scope of nationally-supported efforts.
Congress faces other education issues as well. These include the extent of federal funding for recruiting and training new teachers, the federal role that should be played in helping local communities with school construction costs, and the role that the government should play in supporting and sustaining educational reform – including the critical issue of whether, how, and in what form it should provide support for staff development.
Central to much of the debate is the issue of funding. One facet of that question is how much federal funding for public kindergarten through 12th grade education will be set aside, as compared to funding for other federal priorities such as the military and foreign policy.
A second battle will occur as Congress attempts to sort out the monies that it decides will be allocated to education. In this area, the debates will center on how much will be allocated to Title I, Title VII, Title IV and other major programs that are incorporated within ESEA. With proponents of specific programs vying for support, no decisive action in this area is expected before the end of the current congressional term. The Congress that will emerge after the fall elections, however, will need to address and reconcile all these competing educational priorities.
Given the highly partisan nature of the current reauthorization discussions, and the unpredictability of the upcoming elections, it is difficult to project the future of specific ESEA programs. Most of the major programs probably will continue in some form. How much those programs resemble what has been in place over the last decade, however, remains to be seen.
Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the division director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2000, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2000 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]