Congress OKs less federal education involvement

American schools will feel less federal intervention once the president signs a bill headed his way. Supporters of a measure the U.S. Senate passed 85-12 Wednesday, sending it to President Barack Obama, say that when it becomes law pressure Washi...

American schools will feel less federal intervention once the president signs a bill headed his way.

Supporters of a measure the U.S. Senate passed 85-12 Wednesday, sending it to President Barack Obama, say that when it becomes law pressure Washington has put on local schools will ease and school leaders will have more say in what happens in classrooms.

"There's nothing more important to our kids' futures -- and our country's economic future -- than providing them with a good education," said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., adding that the measure known as Every Student Succeeds Act will feed education success.

The measure removes some U.S. Education Department authority. States would determine how to hold schools accountable rather than rely on a federally imposed sanction system that penalizes schools based on students' standardized test results.

“Among the biggest victories in this bill is ensuring that states have more flexibility," said Franken, a member of the Senate education committee. "The one-size-fits-all approach to fixing failing schools wasn’t working, and this bill will help address that."


The bill, which Obama is expected to sign, overturns the controversial 13-year-old No Child Left Behind law.

Some provisions in the bill especially affect the Upper Midwest, particularly provisions for American Indian Country.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., authored a provision that requires the education secretary to work with the interior secretary and others on Indian issues.

One of the most important issues, Thune said, is planning a federal response to the high number of Indian student suicides.

"I have made it a priority to do as much as I can to help address the tribal youth suicide crisis in South Dakota’s Indian country," Thune said. “Losing a friend or family member to suicide is a tragedy, and while there are numerous known factors that contribute to suicide -- particularly youth suicide -- we can and should do more to understand the problem and find constructive ways to prevent it from happening in the first place."

Thune's efforts also are aimed at reducing school violence in Indian areas.

Franken succeeded in establishing grants for American Indian language immersion programs.

The bill included support for programs to strengthen the role of tribes to better meet the needs of Indian students. It also included a policy to improve coordination among tribes and states and to help retain good teachers in schools on Indian land.


Also, the bill includes provisions to allow rural school districts to work together to better compete for scarce federal funding also sought by big urban districts.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. trumpeted provisions for rural school districts, such as updates to the Impact Aid program that is used to help fund school construction and provide basic education support to schools on or near federal land or military bases, mostly a rural issue. In most areas, schools rely on property taxes for revenue and government lands do not produce those taxes.

Franken said that when he visits rural Minnesota, he hears that under the law for the past 13 years, some schools were required to replace teachers and principals to improve overall performance. "So two schools would just exchange teachers and principals."

While the bill reduces standardized tests requirements, it still mandates them for grades 3 to 8 and once in high school. However, schools will have more freedom to decide how to use test scores to improve student performance.

The measure limits how much time students may spend taking standardized tests.

The bill prohibits the federal education secretary from dictating national education policy, including requiring adoption of the controversial common core teaching standards that critics say confuse students. The secretary cannot force requirements on schools if they are not in law, such as mandating teacher evaluations.

In North Dakota, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler praised the education bill for returning authority to states and local school communities.


“We can now once again shape our school systems in North Dakota based on what we value and what we know is important for our students in our state,” she said.

In light of the change, the Department of Public Instruction will shorten the state assessments for English and math next spring by cutting a classroom activity piece that had little effect on overall test scores, Baesler said, adding it should shorten the test by up to 90 minutes.

Between now and the 2017-18 school year, Baesler said she will assemble a group of K-12 stakeholders to write an accountability plan for education as required by the new law.

Baesler said that while the Adequate Yearly Progress measurements under No Child Left Behind gauged school quality on annual test scores and graduation rates, the new state plan could consider other factors such as the number of fine arts and advanced placement courses offered and professional development for teachers.

“Once we determine what we want to measure, we will also be able to determine what needs to be done to help our lowest-performing schools,” she said.

Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, a public employees union with about 8,000 teachers, said the new law “will empower teachers to be even more creative and bold in their lessons because they can teach to standards and not to standardized tests.”

The executive director of the North Dakota School Boards Association said the current law’s "adequate yearly progress" measurement set a “statistically impossible goal” of having all students proficient in reading and math.

“It gave the public a false impression that our schools are failing, and good schools were labeled in need of improvement, and those days are gone,” he said.

Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota praised the bill's support for science, technology, engineering and math education, subjects needed to keep students competitive.

High-poverty rural schools that usually have received less federal funding than in more populated areas should see more federal funds under the law, Hoeven added.

Heitkamp said her provisions help give educators a better chance to combat human trafficking and prevent suicide.

The human trafficking language ensures that teachers get training they need on the subject, so they can help prevent trafficking in schools.

“Children in tribal communities and rural towns across North Dakota have limitless potential -- they simply need the right tools, resources and protections to achieve,” Heitkamp said about accomplishments in the bill.


Forum News Service reporterMike Nowatzki contributed to this story.

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