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Statement of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) At the HELP Committee Markup: “Strengthening America’s Schools Act”

*As Prepared for Delivery*

“Today we will mark up the Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013, a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA. Our actions today are crucial and long overdue—the last reauthorization of this law expired in 2007. With this mark-up, we have the opportunity to improve on the lessons of the past and ensure a brighter future for our children and the nation.

“I will say, at the outset, what is obvious to everyone. The bill we are considering today represents the views of the Democrats on the Committee. However, I would like to thank the Ranking Member of the Committee, the distinguished Senator from Tennessee, Lamar Alexander. He and I worked in good faith for months to find a path forward for reauthorization. In the end, there were certain fundamental issues on which we could not agree. That is why, along with other HELP Committee Democrats, I have decided to move forward with this bill. It is still my strong hope that the Republicans on this Committee will recognize the significant changes that we have made in this bill to improve the law.

“What I think we all recognize is that it is time to update the law to ensure that every child in this nation receives a great education. This is a matter of basic fairness, and is critical to America’s economic strength in the competitive global marketplace. 

“I want to speak, briefly, about the federal role in education, since ESEA, in large measure, determines that role.  While it is certainly true that education is primarily a state and local function, the federal government also plays an important role, and a well-educated citizenry is clearly in the national interest.  The essential role of the federal government is to ensure all Americans, regardless of race, gender, national origin, religion and disability have the same equal opportunity to a good education.  Likewise, the Constitution expressly states that our national government was formed to ‘promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.’  The general welfare is greatly endangered when the populace is not adequately educated.  And, education is critical to liberty.  

“The role of the federal government in education has been primarily about equity and access:  access to the schoolhouse itself, and equity in educational opportunities.  The two most significant education laws in the country, ESEA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, both promote access and equity.  IDEA seeks to ensure students with disabilities can get into school and that they can have the appropriate education to meet their needs.  And ESEA seeks to ensure that schools serving children with the greatest needs have equal resources to address those needs, so that all students have the opportunity to achieve. But clearly, we have yet to fully achieve those goals.The aim of the bill before us today is to do everything we can to make this vision a reality.

“The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was first passed in 1965 in order to provide aid to States and school districts to improve education for children from low-income families.  For almost 50 years, the federal government has trained its focus on the mission that all children should have the chance to fulfill their full potential.  Our challenge today is to build on this remarkable record of partnership among federal, state and local governments by redesigning the No Child Left Behind Act for the new era—retaining the commitment to educating all children to high standards, while overhauling elements of the law that have proven ineffective. 

“The No Child Left Behind Act represented a departure from previous reauthorizations of ESEA.  Lawmakers felt compelled to be more prescriptive with states to ensure that they improved their low-performing schools and focused on closing pernicious student achievement gaps. NCLB defined ‘adequate yearly progress’ for schools and districts; it required districts to put aside money to implement public school choice and tutoring in schools identified for improvement; it included a list of rigorous interventions for low-performing schools and an additional category of ‘restructuring’ for the most chronically low-performing schools with even more severe consequences. NCLB reflected good intentions. However, as we’ve seen over the course of the past 12 years, those good intentions did not always translate to good policy on-the-ground.

“The Secretary of Education has given schools a reprieve from a number of these requirements through a flexibility agreement that States have undertaken voluntarily. While this reflects a positive change for the time being, it is no substitute for a new law.

“The bill we are marking up today follows a different course than NCLB, and one similar to the flexibility agreements instituted by the U.S. Department of Education. What we are asking for is a system of shared responsibility with States and school districts. I believe that we are entering an era in which the federal government can work in partnership with states to improve our nation’s schools, while continuing to provide a backstop to avoid returning to old ways certain groups of students did not have access or opportunity. Our bill gets rid of AYP, but sets federal parameters for state- and locally-designed accountability systems.

“Our bill also asks states to put greater emphasis on the learning of children in the early years because we know that so many of our children, particularly children from low-income families, have gaps in learning before they even enter the school door.

“Our bill strategically consolidates programs and focuses grant funds on a smaller number of programs to allow for greater flexibility, and supports districts in extending the school day and year, strengthening their literacy, science, math or technology programs, fostering safe and healthy students, and offering a more well-rounded curriculum that includes the arts and physical education. It invests in effective programs to train and support principals and teachers for high-need schools. And, it fosters innovation through new programs like Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and Promise Neighborhoods. 

“We recognize the central role of parents in this bill.  We make sure they are integral partners in their children’s education. Providing parents with critical information so they can make decisions about their children’s education empowers families. Our addition of an equity report card that allows parents to see what resources are available to a school and what educational opportunities, such as advanced placement courses and full-day kindergarten, their children have access to, allows them to make informed decisions about their children’s education.

“I believe this is a very good bill and I am proud of our efforts. We owe it to our kids and our nation to produce a law that provides states and districts with the certainty, support and resources they need to make meaningful strides in improving our schools, ensuring access to high quality education, and guaranteeing opportunities for all of our children.”