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Statement of Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) at the HELP Committee Hearing on the Obama Administration’s ESEA Reauthorization Priorities

As Prepared for Delivery

“I’d like to thank all of you for being here today for the second in a series of hearings focusing on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Today’s testimony will help inform us as we undertake a bipartisan process to reshape this legislation. We have learned a lot since No Child Left Behind was passed nine years ago, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to protect the goals of that law while fixing the things that are not working.

“Today, we are honored to be joined by the United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. As former Superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, Arne brought to Washington an enormous amount of experience and credibility, along with a strong vision for public school reform.  We share the same goals: educational equity; success for all students, regardless of background or disability; and world-class public schools that prepare our young people for college, career, and a rich and fulfilling life.

“This past Sunday I was thrilled to host the Secretary in my home State of Iowa at two education forums, one in Cedar Rapids and one in Des Moines.  Attending our forums were local education leaders, parents and students to ensure that our work to re-draft ESEA benefits from input from a diversity of voices at the local level. 

“Today’s hearing on the Obama Administration’s ESEA reauthorization priorities provides an opportunity to learn more about the details of the President’s Blueprint for Reform. In his introduction to the Blueprint, President Obama says, and I quote: “A world class education is a moral imperative—the key to securing a more equal, fair, and just society. We will not remain true to our highest ideals unless we do a far better job of educating each one of our sons and daughters. We will not be able to keep the American promise of equal opportunity if we fail to provide a world-class education to every child.”

“Those are very fine words, and I could not agree more. Right now, we have an opportunity to shape our educational system to do what is right for every child in this country. When we passed the original ESEA in 1965, it was based, in part, on the principles of civil rights and equity for all. At that time, although the Supreme Court had integrated the schools eleven years earlier in 1954, extreme inequalities still existed between affluent suburban schools, on the one hand, and low-performing schools in many urban and rural districts, on the other.  Unfortunately, more than 45 years after ESEA’s initial passage, these inequities persist.

“For all its flaws, No Child Left Behind has done an excellent job of shining a light on the achievement gaps that still exist, and this is something we want to preserve. However, there is still a lot of work to do to close these gaps and to better prepare our children for college and a career.

“One thing that needs to be fixed is the way that the current law has caused some people to only focus on the kids in the middle – the ones who might just barely pass or fail the test.  That ignores the kids at the top who might get bored and fall behind if they are not challenged.  It also writes off the kids at the very bottom.  We cannot abide an education system that writes kids off if they are behind.

“The President’s Blueprint for Reform seeks to address these and other shortcomings of NCLB by building on prior reforms and re-envisioning the federal role as it relates to accountability, teachers and leaders, and the types of carrots and sticks that are used to push innovation and reform. The reform agenda has five overarching goals: (1) college- and career-ready students, (2) great teachers and leaders in every school, (3) equity and opportunity for all students, (4) raising the bar and rewarding excellence, and (5) promoting innovation and continuous improvement.

“This is a set of goals that should invite broad bipartisan agreement. Those of us sitting around this dais may have differing ideas about the best way to achieve these goals, but the vision laid out by the President has given us a well-thought-out starting point for our deliberations.

“As we reauthorize ESEA, I have some guiding principles of my own. Here are some of my specific goals for reauthorization, based on what I’ve observed and heard in recent years:

•    I believe we need to ensure that all students—no matter their background, community, family, or ability—have equitable access to a quality public education. 

•    We need to reform the accountability structure of No Child Left Behind while continuing to focus on the success of all students. We should give schools and teachers credit for growth and rewards for success, but we must do something about schools that are chronically failing large numbers of students.

•    We need to ensure that we’re offering the well-rounded curriculum that prepares students to be engaged citizens who understand and appreciate the world around them, but also have the academic skills to succeed in college and the global workforce.

•    Our students must have the best possible teachers and academic leaders, and those teachers, principals, and superintendents should have the support they need to do their jobs with excellence.

•    We must safeguard the rights of students with disabilities and ensure that they have every opportunity to succeed academically.

•    Let’s make sure we are focusing on all the needs of America’s students, including their need for good health, nutrition, and physical fitness.

•    Finally, we need to ensure that the policies we write into law are flexible enough to meet the needs of diverse students and schools, including rural schools, but consistent enough to ensure high standards for all students.

“I have some policy ideas about how we can achieve these goals, too.  For example, we need to bite the bullet and get beyond our outdated, 19th Century agrarian school calendar, giving adequate time for students to have a well-rounded education by extending the school day and the school year.  We also need to recognize that education starts at birth and children need a solid foundation for learning before they get to kindergarten.

“Without these and other changes, we cannot hope to be successful in the 21st Century.   

“As Chairman of the Senate HELP Committee I look forward to working with the President, the Secretary and my congressional colleagues – on both sides of the aisle – to write an education law that maintains our focus on the success of all students, while also giving states and districts the supports they need to succeed.”