“Waiving” Goodbye to No Child Left Behind
Over the last few years, Americans for the Arts has been covering each attempt by Congress to reauthorize the Elementary & Secondary Education Act, most recently recognized as No Child Left Behind.
We are pleased to say that this might be the final in a series of blog posts capturing the legislative efforts over the past few years. We began covering legislative developments in 2011, 2013 and then the 2015 actions (January, February, July, and September) that led to this final bill.
Wait, This Year Was Fast…Too Fast?
It’s true. Bringing Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a former governor, together with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), a former preschool teacher, has led to legislative advancement usually unseen and unheard of: unanimous Senate committee approval; an 81-17 Senate vote; nearly unanimous (38-1) Conference Committee approval, and now expected final passage in both houses and a presidential signature! Wow.
We’ve got further details on how we got to this point further down in this blog post, but simply put: after 2 committee efforts, several legislative draft bills and a lot of talking about No Child Left Behind, waivers and inaction – Senators Alexander and Murray successfully brought the two sides together.
What’s clear is this dream team duo has got a process. Perhaps we’ll be looking for them to do a reunion tour in 4 years? Let’s hope the team doesn’t break up!
What Did We Want?
As you might know, Americans for the Arts and about 87 other arts and arts education organizations meet each year to publish a set of policy briefs to address arts education legislative objectives. Among these organizations weighing in are discipline-specific groups representing dance, music, media arts, theater, and visual arts. The group also includes arts education policy leadership from the League of American Orchestras, Arts Education Partnership, NAMM and Grantmakers in the Arts.
Through the year, Americans for the Arts and others have sent out e-blasts and action alerts calling on advocates throughout the country to take action in support of strengthening arts education in any legislative reauthorization. Most recently we developed a national petition to the members of Congress serving on the conference committee to voice support for retaining arts-friendly provisions within the bill. Combined, almost 20,000 individuals signed the petition. Happily, many of these provisions made it into the final bill.
What’s In the Bill for Arts Education? We’ve got a list.
1) Support for Well-Rounded Education
Retaining the arts as a “core academic subject” – as it is in current law – has been a key legislative priority and an arts education message of many past National Arts Advocacy Days. This definition in law has been critical to helping bring time and resources to arts education in schools—and help close the gaps in access to a complete education for every child that includes the arts.
Federal education funding (such as Title I, teacher training, and school improvement grants) is targeted to core academic subjects currently, and as such, the arts have been an eligible expenditure of these funds, but one that often still needed to be articulated and explained in conversations all across the country. Letters like this from the U.S. Department of Education have been key in those conversations, documenting the eligibility of the arts as an expenditure of funds.
The new bill changes things a bit, in that there are no more defined core academic subjects, but in its stead (Sec.8002, “Definitions”) is clear support for well-rounded education, which is defined, and includes the arts. This key language appears in Title I, the largest portion of funds, and is also carried through in over a dozen additional locations of the bill, including within targeted and school-wide grants.
Does this bill further define the arts? Sort of. The Senate committee report is expected to further clarify that the “arts” includes “dance, media arts, music, theatre and visual arts, and other arts disciplines…” which was an important consideration requested by many arts education organizations, including Americans for the Arts.
2) Funding for Arts Education
As readers might recall, there was tremendous interest from some conferees to consolidate and also terminate programs; for instance, “streamlining” and “reducing the federal footprint” were key priorities for Chairman John Kline (R-MN).
However, arts education survived as a continued program.
The bill (in Sec. 4642) includes key, dedicated, and distinct authorization to promote arts education under a new program, Assistance for Arts Education—similar to the current Arts in Education program. The program will promote arts education for disadvantaged students through activities including professional development for arts teachers, development and dissemination of arts-based educational programming in multiple arts disciplines, and national outreach activities that strengthen partnerships among local education agencies, communities, and national centers for the arts—all helping ensure that all students have access to a well-rounded education that includes the arts. Under the program, those receiving grants are also encouraged to coordinate with public or private cultural agencies, institutions, and organizations, including “museums, arts education associations, libraries, and theaters.”
In order to reach agreement for this continued authorization, the authorized funding level did dip slightly, to $20 million, despite currently being funded at $25 million annually. Even with lower, future authorized funding, however, appropriators could still choose to fund at higher levels.
Further work on the implementation side will also be key, in order to continue competitive grant programs like those currently administered by the U.S. Department of Education under its Arts in Education program, where many local or state nonprofit organizations carry out Arts Education Model Demonstration grants and Professional Development for Arts Educators grants in partnership with local educational agencies.
Maintaining distinct arts education grant support is a huge win, especially after years of proposed terminations by Congress and the Obama administration’s suggestions to consolidate this program with many others. Only through years of advocacy by the field and champions like Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and former Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) has the program survived.
But there’s more good news.
Out of the dozens of federal grant programs that were consolidated is a new Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant program (Sec.4104), of which at least 20 percent of the funds are directed to well-rounded education, which includes, “activities in music and the arts.” This funding is distributed by formula (totaling $1.65 billion for FY17, and $1.6 billion for FY18-20), reaching states and school districts. Thus, the arts have equal footing with other academic subjects.
- Pre-School Grant Program – The bill authorizes a pre-school grant program (Sec. 9212) that was funded by Congress last year and for the first time, included the arts within the “Essential Domains of School Readiness” definition as an approach to learning. In addition, the program allows local preschool programs to coordinate with local arts organizations. The changes for this program were successfully advocated then by the Grantmakers in the Arts’ Arts Education Funders Coalition (AEFC). With this authorization now in the bill it helps solidify the program going forward.
- Promise Neighborhoods – The bill authorizes grants for this program (Sec. 4624), which is designed to help improve educational outcomes and transform communities. These plans include eligibility for extended learning time and partnerships between schools and community resources. In past implementation, the arts are listed as one of four competitive priorities.
Despite the impressive and well-documented benefits of arts education, there continues to be acute disparities in access to arts education for students. Reporting helps shed light and provides transparency in how much (or how little) arts education is being offered to our nation’s students. The bill works to help ensure equitable access to a comprehensive education for all students by including some plan provisions designed “to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education, and to close the achievement gap between children meeting the challenging State academic standards and those who are not.” Under the bill, each local educational agency plan is required to describe how they will monitor students' progress in meeting state standards, and how they will implement “a well-rounded program of instruction to meet the academic needs of all students.” Outlining these steps and requiring the reporting will better help ensure that plans are met.
One of the biggest surprises occurred during the 2.5 hour conference committee’s amendment process. Thanks to the efforts of Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), a member of the conference committee, the bill now includes support to schools that provide a well-rounded education through programs that integrate academic subjects, including the arts, into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) courses.
Rep. Bonamici, co-Chair of the Congressional STEAM Caucus, had offered similar amendments in previous legislative efforts, but this time it was approved—unanimously! This is a breakthrough moment for arts education and the STEAM movement.
5. Continued authorization for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers
The 21st Century Community Learning Centers program supports afterschool, out-of-school, and expanded learning time in schools. It serves over 1.6 million children with a budget of just over $1 billion annually, and is a critical source of funding for many afterschool arts programs, especially in lower-performing school districts and higher poverty areas. Continued authorization wasn’t in the initial bills, but it was successfully added (with bipartisan backing) to the Senate version during earlier committee consideration through a restoration amendment. It continues in the final bill, although at slightly lower authorized funding levels.
6. Accountability for lower-performing schools
One big shift took place in the reauthorization bill around the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. SIG was a source of funding for Turnaround Arts – serving the lowest performing five percent of elementary and middle schools – which has demonstrated improved academic achievement, reduced disciplinary referrals, and increased classroom attendance. In the bill, states continued to be required to improve student learning within the lowest-performing five percent of their schools. Although the current School Improvement Grants are eliminated as a separate program, the current four percent set-aside by states from their Title I allocation for school improvement is now increased to a minimum of seven percent, to help target additional funds to these schools, perhaps for arts-based solutions like Turnaround Arts.
7. Testing & Standards
The current adequate yearly progress (AYP) requirements have caused an erosion of arts instruction over the life of No Child Left Behind, as increased pressure to perform on key tests in math and reading led to the stifling often of other curricula, like arts education. Under the new bill, AYP is replaced with multiple measures – an innovation of the states – including student engagement and postsecondary readiness. The arts are a proven way to increase engagement, student attendance, and academic achievement.
Under the new bill, each state will have full control of the “challenging academic standards” within their state, which is exactly how the new arts standards – which serve as a model to be used for state level adaption and adoption – were conceived and developed by leaders from all arts disciplines across all 50 states.
Speaking of state leadership, that’s a significant theme in this legislation: states gain more responsibility for their education reform efforts. It was with this developing trend in mind that Americans for the Arts launched the “State Policy Pilot Program” last year to increase the use of arts education as a state education reform strategy.
Including arts educators as eligible for professional development support (under Title II) has been a priority; here, the bill provides some resources to states and school districts to implement various activities to support teachers, principals, and “other educators”, including professional development. The bill also adjusts the allocation of Title II formula funds so that states with higher numbers of students in poverty receive a higher proportion of funding.
9. Grants directed to Alaska Native organizations
Here, the arts are once again listed as an activity that increase graduation rates and assist students in meeting challenging state academic standards.
As mentioned, the bill now heads for final votes. If successful, it will be the first time in 14 years that federal K-12 education policy has advanced. This is a big deal for a whole generation of students. Here’s a timeline since passage of the previous bill, No Child Left Behind:
The bill authorizes federal education programs for four years – shorter than past authorizations which were typically five years long.
Oh, and you might be wondering, so what’s this new law going to be called? That was a compromise, too. The Senate version was Every Child Achieves Act. The House version was the Student Success Act. The agreement? Every Student Succeeds Act.
Welcome to the world, ESSA.