Washington Update

U.S. Senate committee approves education bill

Scott Barstow December 1, 2011

On Oct. 20, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved legislation, with modest bipartisan support, to reauthorize federal elementary and secondary education programs in a 15-to-7 vote. The legislation rewrites the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, most recently authorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act) and makes several significant changes to current Department of Education policies and programs.

Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) hoped to bring the legislation to the Senate floor in November to leave open the possibility of Congress enacting a reauthorization bill by the end of the year. If this happens, the updated law would preempt the Obama administration’s waiver of several key requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act announced in September. The Department of Education waiver program will give states a pass on following current law procedures for determining “adequate yearly progress.” In addition, states no longer would be required to restructure or take corrective action on Title I schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress for two consecutive years. The Senate bill would scrap the AYP requirement (although some testing requirements would remain) and restrict federally directed interventions to the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and schools with persistent achievement gaps.

The committee’s bill would eliminate the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Program (ESSCP) and many other Department of Education programs. The American Counseling Association and several other organizations representing specialized instructional support personnel, including the American School Counselor Association, the School Social Work Association of America and the National Association of School Psychologists, urged the committee to maintain ESSCP and pushed for inclusion of language in the bill to explicitly recognize school-based mental health and student support professionals. Unfortunately, virtually none of our suggestions for improving the bill were reflected in the legislation the committee approved.

Instead of pushing for a stand-alone program strongly focused on supporting school counseling services, the legislation includes a section titled “Successful, Safe and Healthy Students,” which is modeled on S. 919, a bill Harkin introduced earlier this year. As adopted by the committee, this section of ESEA would support state and local education agencies in developing “comprehensive programs and strategies to foster positive conditions for learning” in schools through activities that promote student physical health and well-being (including nutrition); promote student mental health and well-being; prevent school violence and harassment, and reduce substance abuse; and promote safe and supportive schools.

The Successful, Safe and Healthy Students program would provide funding to states to develop systems measuring conditions for learning in public schools. Whether this funding is distributed on a formula basis to all states or a competitive grant basis to a smaller number of states would depend on the total amount of money appropriated for the program in a year. If appropriations are more than $500 million, formula grants would be used. Applications for funding would have to include a needs analysis.

To obtain a grant, states would have to require all local education agencies to establish policies that “prevent and prohibit conduct that is sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive to limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a program or activity of a public school … or to create a hostile or abusive educational environment … including acts of verbal, nonverbal or physical aggression, intimidation or hostility.” During committee consideration of the bill, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) offered and then withdrew an amendment to insert the text of his Student Non-Discrimination Act (S. 555). Franken’s amendment, which he intends to offer on the Senate floor during the bill’s consideration, would prohibit discrimination against students on the basis of “actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The Successful, Safe and Healthy Students program would also require states to establish a reporting and information system that tracks school-level data, including physical education indicators; student attendance and truancy; suspensions, expulsions, disciplinary transfers and referrals to law enforcement; the incidence and seriousness of violence and drug-related offenses; and the incidence and prevalence, age of onset, perception of health risk and “perception of social disapproval” of drug use and violence, including harassment. The legislation also requires that programs implemented through subgrants to local education agencies be based on scientifically valid research. In awarding subgrants, states would have to give priority to applications demonstrating the greatest need according to local assessments or targeting schools with the highest concentrations of poverty.

With its elimination of ESSCP and a lack of provisions recognizing school counselors as an integral component of successful schools, the legislation the Senate committee approved is somewhat lacking. To cite one important example, the legislation would continue the current law’s focus on supporting teacher and principal development without also extending training and recruiting support to school counselors and other specialized instructional support personnel.

ACA will continue working in coalition with our sister organizations to push for federal recognition of the important role of school counselors and related staff in our education system. For more information, contact Scott Barstow with ACA at sbarstow@counseling.org

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