Senate passes ESEA reauthorization; arts are core

The US Senate passed its version of the reauthorization bill for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, S.1177, known as the Every Child Achieves Act, by an 81-17 vote this afternoon, and with passage in the House of Representatives last week of H.R.5, the Student Success Act, all eyes are on the upcoming conference that will try to reconcile differences between the two bills.

Although most educators are watching what happens to testing, Title I funds, and other mandates that do create a burden for schools, educators who are part of the National Association for Music Education are all but giddy over the Senate’s inclusion of fine arts and music education as part of the academic core.

“The Senate’s action today is an important step forward in ensuring that all students, regardless of their socioeconomic status, experience the demonstrable positive impact that music education has on learning and life,” wrote Chris Woodside, NAfME’s assistant executive director. “By naming music and arts as core subjects in the Every Child Achieves Act, the Senate has acknowledged and begun to address the national problem of the narrowing of the curriculum that has taken place under No Child Left Behind for more than a decade now.”

Music educators sent several thousand letters to senators and representatives in order to get music and arts in the legislation and make an attempt to reverse some of the narrowing of the curriculum to tested subjects, such as math and reading, that deprived students, especially those at schools that were being punished as “failing” schools, of any fine arts programming at school.

Mr Woodside said the Senate’s vote showed that “senators from across the country are acknowledging that [music and the arts] should be national education priorities.”

Stay tuned as the bill makes its way through conference. Here are some links to sites that have extensive coverage on Capitol Hill to fill you in on the remaining details of S.1177 and H.R.5.

  • The New York Times says Congress is looking to scale back, substantially, the role of the federal government in education. Additional coverage is here.
  • The history, text, and amendments of S.1177 on the US Senate’s website show how difficult it was to get this bill passed.
  • Education historian Diane Ravitch, while not mentioning inclusion of the arts and music, says S.1177 “retains annual testing but removes federal sanctions attached to test results. Any rewards or sanctions attached to test scores will be left to states.”
  • An Education Week “cheat sheet” compares current law under NCLB, waiver conditions imposed by the US Department of Education, the Senate bill, and the House bill, both of which passed.

The Senate also rejected, almost out of hand, extensions to school choice, such as voucher programs, but provided additional funding for charter schools in S.1177. And if charters can be expected to survive without the feds dictating consequences of low test scores—turnaround options that included under No Child Left Behind firing all the teachers at the school and converting it to a charter school—they’re going to need all the help they can get.

But S.1177 also—and teachers should be happy to hear this—bars the US secretary of education from tying test scores to teacher evaluations and sharply rebukes the punitive measures of No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top federal grant competition that attached significant monetary gains to states’ adoption of the Common Core State Standards.

Speaking for the Network for Public Education, Ms Ravitch wrote:

I will say that we are pleased to see a decisive rejection of federal micromanagement of curriculum, standards, and assessments, as well as the prohibition of federal imposition of particular modes of evaluating teachers. We oppose annual student testing; no high-performing nation in the world administers annual tests, and there is no good reason for us to do so. We reject the claim that children who are not subjected to annual standardized tests suffer harm or will be neglected.

We believe that the standardized tests are shallow and have a disparate impact on children who are Black and Brown, children with disabilities, and children who are English language learners. We believe such tests degrade the quality of education and unfairly stigmatize children as “failures.” We also regret this bill’s financial support for charter schools, which on average do not perform as well as public schools, and in many jurisdictions, perform far worse than public schools. We would have preferred a bill that outlawed the allocation of federal funds to for-profit K-12 schools and that abandoned time-wasting annual testing.

Significantly for activist parents and students in our communities, although the opt-out movement has been a driving force in education reform, whereby parents have their children refuse to take standardized tests required under federal law, the Senate ultimately rejected an amendment that would have put opt-out into ESEA and codified that right of parents.

The bill may be far from perfect, and nobody knows yet what elements will survive the conference committee. But as it stands, S.1177 goes further than anything has in years toward reducing the harmful effects a narrowing of the school curriculum has had on schools and students. The bill would both allow and encourage a widening of curricular offerings and programs in our schools. Here’s the bill’s language:

  • (K) programs and activities that offer a variety of well-rounded educational experience for students, such as those that:
    • (i) use music and the arts as a tool to promote constructive student engagement, problem solving, and conflict resolution; or
    • (ii) further students’ understanding of and knowledge in computer science from elementary school through secondary school;
… and later …
  • (11) CORE ACADEMIC SUBJECTS. — The term ‘core academic subjects’ means English, reading or language arts, writing, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, geography, computer science, music, and physical education, and any other subject as determined by the State or local educational agency.

The bill would allow this expansion of school programs by removing the harmful punishments NCLB imposed on schools with low math and reading scores, and it would encourage an expansion of programs by directly listing subjects like music, art, computer science and technology, and so on, as part of the academic core.

The Every Child Achieves Act also includes a significant funding focus on STEM education, even as it eliminates the current Adequate Yearly Progress accountability system. If what passed becomes law, states will be allowed to develop their own accountability systems, within the current annual federal testing schedule in math, reading, and science, but states and school districts have greater flexibility to develop innovative assessments.

States still have to provide disaggregated data for subgroups of students, and they still have to identify low-performing schools. However, S.1177, as it passed the Senate, will not require states to set specific targets or interventions. States will be required to set “challenging academic standards for all students,” but no longer can the federal government favor one set of standards, like the Common Core, over any other standards the states may choose to adopt.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.