A Washington Education Update: Can Washington Work Together to Address Issues Confronting the Nation?

This is a very difficult question and it cannot be answered very simply. In reality given how politics has aligned itself on Capitol Hill, each issue has to be addressed individually. At times we will find strange “bed fellows” as shown in at least one legislative example described below.

This piece is being written as the final battle lines are being drawn before there is agreement on a solution to the debt crisis and a first step for address the unbalanced budget better known as the budget deficit. It seems the Gang of Six has at least made the first foray into a bipartisan proposal that has garnered support from President Obama and a bipartisan group of some 50 senators.

Other things are happening both at the U.S. Department of Education and on the Hill.

From the U.S. Department of Education:
First, Secretary Duncan hinted recently as part of a “what if there is no ESEA reauthorization this year” discussion that there is a possibility of entertaining waivers from states to provide flexibility from some of the existing law’s requirements. This will only happen if states request them. Kentucky has already requested a waiver and there may be 20 more state waiver requests about to be made. Representative John Kline, who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, has reacted unfavorably to this approach, and wrote a letter requesting the Secretary to state by what authority he can do this without legislation.

Secretary Duncan responded by citing section 9401 of NCLB, which authorizes the U.S. Department of Education to waive most statutory and regulatory requirements if needed to “increase the quality of instruction for students and improve the academic achievement of students.” Duncan said that waivers “would not be a permanent solution but a temporary one,” while reauthorization moves forward. However, Kline still does not think the letter was responsive. We shall see what happens next in this melodrama. Many people remember that then Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings offered waivers under the same legislative authority and no one questioned her approach or authority to do so. Inside the Beltway thinking is that the department will issue nothing but tell states to submit waiver requests that will be reviewed on a state-by-state basis.

Second, the U.S. Department of Education has released the application for the second phase of the Promise Neighborhoods program, including new implementation grants and a second round of planning grants, totaling $30 million. Nonprofits, institutions of higher education and Indian tribes are eligible to apply for funds to develop or execute plans that will improve educational and developmental outcomes for students in distressed neighborhoods.
The department expects to award first-year funds for four to six implementation grants with an estimated grant award of $4 million to $6 million. Implementation grantees will receive annual grants over a period of three to five years with total awards ranging from $12 million to $30 million. Remaining 2011 funds will go toward 10 new one-year planning grants with an estimated grant award of $500,000.
Promise Neighborhoods grants will provide critical support for comprehensive services ranging from early learning to college and career, including programs to improve the health, safety and stability of neighborhoods, as well as to boost family engagement in student learning. President Obama's fiscal year 2012 budget requests $150 million to provide continued funding support to implementation grantees in addition to funding a new round of planning and implementation grants.

Applications are due on Sept. 6, 2011. Winners will be selected and awards will be made no later than Dec. 31, 2011. Officials from the Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement will conduct several webinars for potential applicants. All webinars require participants to register in advance. Registration and additional information about the Promise Neighborhoods program will be available at

On Capitol Hill:
Even though the focus has been on deficit reduction, debt ceilings and taxes, several pieces of education legislation have been introduced including:
  • Recovery dollars seen in 2010 are no longer available unless the funds have not been spent by states and local governmental entities. Qualified Zone Academy Bonds (QZABs) and Qualified School Construction Bonds have bills pending in the House and Senate to reauthorize these programs, as does Build America Bonds. The House bill for QZABS allows for funding for new school construction for the first time.
  • A bill entitled the All Children Are Equal Act (ACE), has been introduced by Representative Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) which seeks to scale back the population part of the Title I formula, so that Title I dollars are more focused on student poverty, not just population density.
The Title I formula is highly complicated, but in a nutshell, the money is distributed to districts based on their size and concentration of poverty, among other factors. That means that, generally speaking, larger districts and big urban areas often come out ahead of poor, rural districts and small cities. For instance, Fairfax County, Va., (one of the richest counties in the nation) gets a disproportionate share of Title I dollars than some rural districts with higher concentrations of poverty. Title I formula funding is the sort of issue that doesn't divide neatly along partisan lines. Thompson is the lead sponsor, but he also has the support of a number of Democrats, including Representatives G.K. Butterfield, (D-N. C.) and Ruben Hinojosa, (D-Texas). The bill also has fans among Thompson's fellow House Education and Workforce Committee Republicans, including Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa). There is no Senate sponsor yet, but in the past, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, (R-N. C.), has expressed interest in this issue. One source for learning more about this bill is a paper written by Marty Strange of the Rural School and Community Trust, which discusses some of the winning and losing districts under the current formula and was the basis for this legislation.
  • The House Committee on Education and the Workforce approved the State and Local Funding Flexibility Act (H.R. 2445) to provide states and local school districts maximum flexibility in the use of federal education funds. This legislation marks the committee’s third in a series of bills designed to reform current elementary and secondary education law.
The Act takes a new approach by putting decision-making back in the hands of the state and local officials who can develop effective programs and initiatives that best prepare children for success. The House Committee approach is to have four separate bills for the reauthorization of ESEA.

This does not mean states and school districts will be given carte blanche to spend taxpayer dollars without any accountability. Despite arguments to the contrary, this legislation maintains the precedent of holding states and school districts responsible for the achievement of all students, and preserves the monitoring, reporting and accountability requirements of existing ESEA programs. Furthermore, the legislation includes a reasonable annual notification requirement that obligates school districts and states to report how they plan to use federal funds.

Both Republicans and Democrats share the goal of ensuring every student has access to a quality education. By providing freedom in the use of federal education resources, I firmly believe the State and Local Funding Flexibility Act will help states and school districts address the needs of all students, including low-income students, students with disabilities, English language learners and migrant students.
  • The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) have yet to present its ESEA reauthorization bill and there is little hope for ESEA reauthorization to be finished by the end of calendar year 2011. Conventional wisdom is that it won’t be until 2013 before anything can be resolved.
Frederick (Fritz) S. Edelstein, Ph.D. is a principal in Public Private Action, LLC. Fritz works with clients on strategic government and constituent relations, advocacy research and policy analysis, strategic planning and resource development, and advocacy, outreach and public engagement. He writes and disseminates “Fritzwire,” the nation’s leading Internet newsletter on education that provides timely education and related information, five days a week. His career includes time working at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, U.S. Department of Education and the National Alliance of Business. Fritz earned is B.A. from Washington University and a M.Ed. and Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.