Summer Legislative Activity

With another school year underway, teachers and students are getting back into the swing of things and sharing stories about how they spent their summer vacations. While school was out, the U.S. Congress ramped up its work on a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the nation’s chief education law, currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Action began on June 12 when the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) passed the Strengthening America’s Schools Act (SASA). Unlike NCLB, which HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) said had a “‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to school improvement,” SASA would provide states with flexibility to institute their own college- and career-ready standards, performance targets, academic assessments, and accountability models.

Of particular interest to middle level educators, the bill includes a Pathways to College program that provides specific support to low-performing middle schools. It also institutes a comprehensive early warning indicator system that helps identify students at risk of dropping out in middle school and develops personalized graduation plans for them.

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce followed the Senate’s opening act on June 19 when it passed the Student Success Act, its version of a bill to rewrite NCLB.

I believe the Senate bill asserts an appropriate federal role for education policy—one that is supportive and flexible while preserving the protections for historically underserved students that have been the hallmark of federal education policy since ESEA was first signed into law in 1965. The House bill, on the other hand, is heavy on the federal government identifying problems but light on remedies.

As of the writing of this column, the future of both bills is unclear. Harkin said that he would like to bring SASA up for a vote on the Senate floor, but he could face difficulty finding the Republican support necessary for the bill to pass the full Senate, especially because it did not receive any Republican support when voted out of the Senate HELP Committee. In the House, Republicans could pass an NCLB rewrite without Democratic support, but whatever the House passes will need to be reconciled with the Senate’s vastly different version.

So while action by both House and Senate education committees provides the first light at the end of the very long ESEA tunnel, the question is this: can a bipartisan train straddle very different sets of partisan tracks and make it to the president’s desk? Time will tell.

Also of note was the June 18 announcement from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that the Obama administration is open to extending the deadline by which states implement new systems of evaluating principals and teachers. States that request and receive flexibility can delay any personnel consequences for teachers and principals tied to the new assessments that are aligned with college- and career-ready standards for up to one year, until the 2016–2017 school year. Read more at

Finally, in a June 6 speech at Mooresville Middle School in North Carolina, President Obama announced ConnectED, a plan to provide 99% of the nation’s students with next-generation broadband and high-speed wireless in schools and libraries within five years. The plan would also ensure that every educator in America receives support and training to use technology to help improve student outcomes. Read more at

Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, Washington, D.C.

Published in AMLE Magazine, September 2013.