by Félix Pérez
Hyperpartisan gridlock is the description commonly used when describing Congress. But the legislative body notched some significant bipartisan victories for students and educators when it wrapped up its session last month thanks in large measure to the advocacy of educators.
Leading the way, after an unprecedented yearlong grassroots campaign waged by educators nationwide, was Congress’ vote to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the deeply flawed education law more commonly known as No Child Left Behind. Renamed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the bipartisan bill brings the No Child Left Behind era to an end after nearly 14 years. ESSA:
- Creates an opportunity “dashboard” to help ensure equity and opportunity for all students
- Reduces the amount of standardized testing and decouples test scores and high-stakes decision-making.
- Ensures educators’ voices are part of decision-making at the federal, state, and local levels, including the expansion of collective bargaining.
- Provides greater access to early childhood education and includes full service community schools, addressing the school-to-prison pipeline and school-based mental health.
“Educators will have a seat at the table when it comes to making decisions that affect their students and classrooms,” said Utah elementary school teacher and NEA president Lily Eskelsen García after the Senate vote in December. “This legislation begins to close the opportunity gaps for students by providing a new system that includes an ‘opportunity dashboard’ with indicators of school success and student support. Not only does it reduce the amount of standardized testing in schools, but it decouples high-stakes decisions and statewide testing so students have more time to develop critical thinking while educators do what they love — inspire a lifelong love of learning.”
Among the wins for students in poverty, children with disabilities, students most in need and their families was additional funding for Title I ($500 million), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ($415 million), Head Start ($570 million) and Child Care and Development Block Grants ($326 million). In addition, the new budget also established a new Pell grant maximum of $5,915, an increase of $140.
“There’s no question that the hard-won and expanded opportunities for students from pre-K to college were due to the persistent, persuasive and expert voice of educators all across the nation,” said Mary Kusler, the National Education Association’s government relations director. Kusler, who said educators sent nearly 400,000 messages last year to Congress as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act advocacy campaign, as well as the budget and other key issues, added:
It’s a credit to teachers and education support professionals that their thousands upon thousands of emails, tweets, phone calls, petition signatures, personal stories and visits with members of Congress throughout the year resulted in these historic bipartisan accomplishments. True to their nature, educators showed Congress a thing or two about leaving no stone unturned when it comes to what’s best for students regardless of their zip code.
In another priority win for educators, Congress permanently extended the $250 educator tax deduction and indexed it to inflation. The deduction, which until now had been renewed on a yearly basis, is designed to help offset the out-of-pocket expenditures educators make every year for classroom supplies and professional development. According to the marketing firm SheerID, educators spent approximately $1.5 billion of their own money during the 2013-14 school year on classroom supplies and professional development. Indexing the deduction cap to inflation will help with the increased costs for books, pencils, paper, art materials and other classroom supplies.
“Even when they must sacrifice their own personal needs to cover the cost of classroom materials, supplies and professional development, educators do so to ensure their students have what they need to succeed. The permanent educator tax deduction is well deserved,” said Kusler.
Another noteworthy victory among several contained in the omnibus budget includes a delay until 2020 of a 40 percent excise tax on the cost of employer-sponsored healthcare coverage above certain amounts. The tax would have resulted in a steep tax for some health plans offering moderate benefits, while plans with better benefits might not be taxed at all. The tax disproportionately affects women, older employees, and workers in markets where health care costs more, according to a study by the actuarial group Milliman.
Separately, the omnibus did not extend the Washington, D.C., private school voucher program. The private schools that participate in the voucher program receive public money but are not subject to the federal civil rights laws that public schools must comply with — they may discriminate against a student based on his or her gender, disability, religion, economic background, national origin, academic record, English language ability, or disciplinary history.
“We still have stiff challenges ahead of us, perhaps most notably the state-by-state implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. But I am confident that educators will not let up,” said Kusler.