New federal education law could save local districts money

by Renata Birkenbuel

Montana Office of Public Instruction officials said the Every Student Succeeds Act will:

  • Eliminate the federally mandated school-grading system known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and will allow states to develop their own accountability measures.
  • Give states flexibility on assessment, while still requiring an annual assessment in grades 3 to 8 and high school.
  • Include ongoing support for the Preschool Development Grant, giving more children access to free, quality preschool.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who voted for the bill, including a bipartisan amendment giving local school boards greater control in the classroom. It passed unanimously.

The amendment encourages the secretary of education to consider input from local school boards before finalizing new regulations.

“The failure of No Child Left Behind to improve education in rural America is proof enough that local school boards know better than anyone what their students need,” Tester said in a press release. “This amendment will help local folks in Montana have greater input over what happens in classrooms in Montana.”

The reversal of a federal education act could save Butte public school district money in the long run.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate voted 85-12 to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act, effectively nullifying the No Child Left Behind Act set in course by George W. Bush in 2001.

It basically reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as ESEA.

If President Barack Obama signs the bill into law Friday, the new federal elementary and secondary policy legislation won’t go into effect until the 2017-18 school year.

Jim O’Neill, Butte school district curriculum director, said the new legislation will help the district save money.

For example, ESSA will reduce the number of standardized tests districts must administer.

It will cut down on the number of tutors the district hires, too, to bring lagging readers up to speed prior to test-taking. No Child Left Behind standards required the Butte school district to hire extra tutoring last year.

But only 2 of 30 students taking private tutoring raised their reading level, said O’Neill.

“We pay about $1,500 per student for that tutoring, so that will go away,” he added. “Now it’s good that we can use that money to hire more teachers, get smaller class sizes and get help for those at-risk kids.”

While districts will still maintain local control over curriculum – such as how to apply state Common Core standards – much of the onus lands on the state.

“The burden is on the state to develop a working plan on how they want to address the issue,” said Judy Jonart, Butte school district superintendent. “It is status quo for this year, but there’s a lot of work we have to do to start preparing for the next year.”

Starting in 2000, No Child Left Behind set incremental test requirements for all public schools nationwide in a cookie-cutter approach. It started with 60 percent of tests passed and has increased to 100 percent, or risk losing federal funding. Jonart and O’Neill said no school can reach the latter.

“We’ve always had to make yearly adequate yearly progress. That will go away now,” said O’Neill. “NCLB says right now that every school in the country has to pass 100 percent of its tests. It’s like having zero percent unemployment – that’s what NCLB is asking. It’s unrealistic.”

But the Butte school district will still be responsible for teaching students at grade level and testing, both Jonart and O’Neill emphasized.

“We need to have accountability,” O’Neill said. “It’s not that the schools are running away from it.”

Eric Feaver, MEA-MFT president, said the reauthorization is “long overdue” and it will “empower local communities in determining what is best for their public school students.”

The Montana Office of Public Instruction expects it to return education accountability to states, local school boards, schools and parents. It will allow more flexibility in testing, among other advantages.

Each state will be responsible for tracking the performance of its public schools and identifying which ones need more resources.

Feaver said ESSA “will restore balance to how we here on the ground in Montana govern, administer and teach in our excellent public schools.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said in an OPI statement earlier this week, “it takes great strides toward returning educational accountability to states, local school boards, teachers and parents.”

She said the bill isn’t perfect, though.

“The outdated law created absurd expectations designed by urban bureaucrats, which doesn’t make sense for today’s schools,” Juneau added. “It’s about time the federal government recognizes Montana’s public school leaders know what’s best for our students.”

The state will have a neutral year – 2016 to 2017 – to prepare before the law kicks in the following academic year.

“I’m assuming they’ll start having conversations at the state level this year,” Jonart added. “What they have done in the past is ask for participation on certain committees when there are new changes. It’s a lot of work.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., voted for and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., voted against the bill on Wednesday. Last week, when it passed in the House, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Kalispell, voted for the bill.