The Congressional Meat Grinder Cranks to Life
Ever since the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) authorization formally ended in 2007, Congress has been trying to reauthorize it, but with very little success. You remember NCLB? It passed Congress with whopping margins of 381-41 in the House and 87-10 in the Senate and President Bush signed it into law with big smiles from education champions like Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and House committee leaders John Boehner (R-OH) and George Miller (D-CA). That was then.
Since then, NCLB has been attacked each year by education advocates on all sides and the Obama Administration has gone so far as to grant waivers to 37 states allowing them to opt out of many of the law’s regulations, which will remain in place until the law is reauthorized. It’s been sad as education leaders, in and out of Congress, proclaim the “urgent” need to end the labeling of failing schools, to curb the “unintended consequences” that have been a fundamental problem with NCLB. Years have passed without even a floor vote on replacement legislation.
I’ve known Capitol Hill staff who were hired to work on the reauthorization (now referred to as the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA)) who have given up waiting and moved to jobs off the Hill.
However, in the last few weeks we’ve seen a burst of congressional action to reform education.
Americans for the Arts and many national arts education advocacy groups have been tracking these developments closely since arts education locally can be profoundly impacted by federal policy. Here's my report on the recent developments and how they relate to arts education.
Senate Committee Action
On June 11 and 12, the Senate education committee considered S.1094, the “Strengthening America’s Schools Act” introduced by Chairman Tom Harkin. The legislation was based on a similar bill that Mr. Harkin introduced in the previous Congress which also passed out of committee but didn’t make it to the Senate floor before that Congress adjourned.
This Harkin bill includes a number of positive developments for arts education.
- The arts are, once again, listed as a core academic subject of learning which is important for accessing federal funding and programs. The more often the phrase “core academic subjects” is used in this legislation, the better off arts education will be.
- This year early childhood education has received a major boost, starting with President Obama’s State of the Union address. New early childhood language in the Harkin bill includes the “creative arts” as a subject of learning – which is just what Mr. Harkin said he’d do when he accepted our 2013 award for Public Leadership in the Arts on Arts Advocacy Day in April (video).
- In the Expanded Learning Time (ELT) section, music and the arts are encouraged as allowable uses of funds. ELT and the arts got a big boost recently with a blockbuster report from the National Center on Time & Learning which profiled five schools advancing arts education through an expanded school day.
- There’s a “Well-Rounded” program section as well, and it includes arts and music by name among the twelve eligible subjects. This provision reflects a shift in how the federal government might support arts education going forward. Instead of providing dedicated grant support as it has for the last decade, the U.S. Department of Education would have states compete for funding, based on their plan on how to support these subjects with their school districts and other partners.
- In the 21st Century Learning (after-school) section, music and the arts are encouraged as allowable uses of funds.
- The bill maintains support for an arts education program of “National Significance” (which is the competitive grant currently awarded to the Kennedy Center) to, “Support model projects and programs that encourage involvement in the performing and visual arts for…persons with disabilities...children, youth, and educators.”
- In the Promise Neighborhoods section, there’s new language calling for “the integration and use of arts education in such [expanded] learning time.” Promise Neighborhoods has actually included a preference for arts education in its guidelines, but this legislation would formally authorize such support.
The next step for this legislation is to get on the Senate floor – a task made very hard by the deliberate pace of the Senate, competing legislation, and the fact that it passed out of committee with no GOP support (the vote was 12-10). Consideration of policy issues like this typically requires 60 votes to proceed, and the Democrats might only be able to gather 55 votes.
House Committee Action
One week later, on June 19, the House Education & Workforce Committee approved, by a similar party-line vote of 23-16, the “Student Success Act” (H.R. 5) introduced by Chairman John Kline (R-MN). According to Education Week’s insightful Politics K-12 blog the legislation would, “keep the No Child Left Behind's testing regime in place (each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school), but leave the actual school improvement decisions completely up to states. It would combine a whole bunch of education programs—including those for migrant children, delinquent students, English-Language learners, and others—into a big giant funding stream, with the aim of maximum flexibility.” The federal role for arts education is ended in this bill.
However, the interesting development at the House committee markup was a substitute amendment offered by Ranking Member George Miller which included several new pro-arts provisions. Sadly, the amendment failed on (another) party-line vote, but we expect Mr. Miller to continue pushing for these changes through future consideration on the House floor. Americans for the Arts was so pleased with the proposals Mr. Miller offered, we sent in a letter of support for them – in fact, we encouraged many arts education organizations to do so – they’re all listed on this committee website. Our letter read, in part:
“Americans for the Arts and the 85 national cosponsoring organizations of Arts Advocacy Day have been working for years to urge Congress, through a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), to clarify the allowable uses of Title I funds for all core academic subjects, such as arts education. By also including all core academic subjects in your school turnaround provisions you are ensuring that these struggling schools could have greater flexibility to use the arts as a turnaround strategy. Your amendment’s provisions will strengthen equitable access to arts learning for all students, especially low-income and disadvantaged students.
Additional provisions that we are pleased to support are:
- Including specified support for arts education grants in a Well Rounded Curriculum fund at the U.S. Department of Education;
- Adding art and design into the definition of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program activities;
- Naming the arts as an eligible activity relating to expanded learning time (ELT)”
Right now we’re at the same place we were in 2011—a Senate committee bill and a House committee bill. Neither have bipartisan support and both have a rocky path to a) being considered on the floor; b) being approved; c) getting to a formal conference committee; and, d) getting through final passage. Chairman Kline has said he’s pushing for floor consideration in July, and Senator Harkin says the Senate will take up his bill later this year.
As the Congressional meat grinder continues, Americans for the Arts will be working to share these legislative developments with grassroots advocates throughout the country and work with congressional staff to build support for the pro-arts provisions above.