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New education law wins bipartisan praise

New Hampshire Union Leader

December 09. 2015 8:55PM
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) signs the Every Student Succeeds Act during an enrollment ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday. (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

The end of No Child Left Behind is at hand, as the U.S. Senate on Wednesday passed an education reform bill that gives more control to the states, with funding for after-school programs, early childhood education and new initiatives in science, technology, engineering and math.

The first major re-write of federal education policy in more than a decade, the Every Student Succeeds Act now heads to President Obama’s desk after rarely seen bipartisan votes in both the House and Senate. The president said he would sign the bill into law on Friday.

The Senate’s 85-12 vote came a week after the House voted 359-64 for the measure — a sign of widespread dissatisfaction with No Child Left Behind, signed into law in 2001 by President George W. Bush.

New Hampshire stands to benefit in many ways, according to the state Department of Education, school administrators and teachers unions, each of which was represented in a conference call with New Hampshire reporters on Wednesday.

“This marks a fundamental shift in the way the federal government looks at education,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. “It gives New Hampshire more control over how our schools are run. While states will be required to adopt challenging academic standards, they are not required to use any particular set of standards like Common Core, and teacher evaluation is not going to be tied to student test scores.”

Public schools have always been free to disregard federal mandates, if they chose to forgo federal funds, which few could ever afford to do. The new law assures those funds will be distributed with fewer strings attached.

It also adds funding through a new program called Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, to promote things like after-school STEM education programs and nonprofit STEM student competitions, like New Hampshire’s FIRST robotics competition.

Significant discretion

States will have significant discretion over how to distribute the grants, which will total $1.65 billion nationally in the next fiscal year, subject to appropriation votes.

New Hampshire stands to get an estimated $7.75 million to $8 million dollars each year for such programs, starting in fiscal year 2017.

States will be free to use a variety of federal funding sources for early childhood education, as they see fit, with $250 million made available each year, subject to appropriations, for a competitive grant program targeting pre-K programs.

The bill also includes support for school-based mental health services, and for students dealing with substance abuse.

Another provision allows states to use federal funding for training programs that help teachers and administrators recognize and prevent child sexual abuse.

Both of New Hampshire’s senators were big supporters of the bill and contributed to many of its provisions, especially those relating to STEM education and new approaches to measuring student progress.

“This bipartisan bill will return accountability and responsibility for education decisions back to where it belongs — in states, local school districts and classrooms,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.

Pilot program

Ayotte and Shaheen collaborated on one provision of the bill that allows more states to participate in pilot programs using competency-based assessments instead of the traditional “color-in-the-bubble” standardized tests.

In March, four New Hampshire school districts became the first in the nation to measure student progress in a pilot program called Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE).

The program allowed the districts (Sanborn Regional, Rochester, Epping and Souhegan) to reduce the frequency of standardized testing in favor of locally managed assessments based on multi-day tasks built into a student’s day-to-day work.

Education Commissioner Virginia Barry could not say exactly how New Hampshire’s standardized testing program will evolve under the new law, but she suggested the PACE program provides a roadmap.

“Our pilot study in competency-based education is moving the nation forward, focusing on our children’s ability to demonstrate their knowledge and skills,” she said.

Union support

Scott McGilvray, president of National Education Association in New Hampshire, and Laura Hainey, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, both had high praise for the new education law. “This is going to give teachers more classroom instructional time,” said McGilvray.

“They were spending weeks and weeks not only administering standardized tests, but preparing students for taking those tests. This is going to turn that around.”

The bill was supported in the House by Democratic Rep. Ann Kuster. The state’s other representative in Congress, Republican Frank Guinta, was one of 64 votes against the measure.

“ESSA maintains elements of No Child Left Behind and leaves the door open to Common Core,” Guinta said. “The bill does not meet my high standards for the Granite State.”

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