On Thursday, April 16 the Senate HELP Committee gave a unanimous vote of approval to a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The unnumbered bill is called the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015. It would replace the current ESEA reauthorization more commonly known as the “No Child Left Behind Act.” The unanimous vote by both Republicans and Democrats is less about the support for the bill than it is an endorsement of the process and an encouragement to continue that effort. Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) had negotiated with Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) for many months and in urging members to support it he pointed out there would be several chances to amend it and to vote against it if a member was not satisfied by the final legislation.
The Committee took three days to debate and amend the underlying bill. In some instances amendments were offered only to be pulled back with an understanding that senators would offer amendments on the floor with the full intent of making changes to the legislation. For access to amendments that were adopted, defeated and offered and pulled go here.
There are two general areas child welfare advocates will want to focus on. One is early childhood education and prekindergarten services. A bipartisan early learning amendment was sponsored Senator Murray and Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) that was passed on a voice vote. It is not the much larger proposal submitted by the President the last two years but instead offers a competitive grant program for states to improve coordination, quality, and access for early childhood education. If enacted and funded states could apply for a three-year grant with a 30 percent state match requirement. Grants focus on 3 and 4 year olds whose family’s incomes do not exceed 130 percent of poverty. One of the allowable uses of funding is high quality early education for infants and toddlers.
The second area for child welfare advocates is an effort to amend the law to better address the needs of children in foster care. The 2008 Fostering Connections to Success Act directed child welfare agencies (through amendments to Title IV-E of the Social Security Act) to assure that if a child is placed in foster care they remain in their same school if it’s in the child’s best interest. If a child must move because it is in their best interest then the child welfare agency is to assure that they get immediate enrollment in a new school district. This also includes the required transfer of important documents such as education records.
The legislation as introduced requires the state education plan to include information on how the state educational agency will ensure collaboration with the state child welfare agency “to improve the educational stability of children or youth in foster care” including an assurance that any child or youth in foster care is immediately enrolled in a school, even if the child or youth is unable to produce records normally required for enrollment; and that the enrolling school will immediately contact the school last attended by any such child or youth to obtain relevant academic and other records.
In addition to the state education plan requirements, the bill directs the federal Department of Education and HHS to release a study within two years on barriers to collaboration between the local education agency and child welfare agency including any barriers created by federal law or regulation. It also directs the study to examine:
- the benefits and challenges of keeping a foster child in the school of origin when the child moves to a new school district
- the academic impact of increased stability as a result of a child remaining in the school of origin;
- challenges for local educational agencies and child welfare agencies as a result of remaining in the school of origin, including challenges associated with transportation;
- estimates of transportation costs if a child stays in the school of origin;
- an analysis of the most appropriate entity to pay transportation costs for a foster care child who is changing or leaving placements and remaining in the school of origin;
- barriers to credit transfer, including awarding partial credit for coursework, for a child in foster care who is changing schools;
- the impact on local educational agencies of a local educational agency designating an individual as a point of contact for a child welfare agency,
- the entity most suited to having the responsibility for outreach on behalf of the education of a child in foster care enrolled in a school; and
- the benefits and limitations of designating the local educational agency liaison the McKinney- Vento Homeless Assistance Act as the same point of contact at the local educational agency for children in foster care.
Senator Murray and Senator Al Franken (D-MN) are sponsoring legislation (that will likely be adapted into a floor amendment) that attempts to create similar requirements under education law that already exist in child welfare law. In addition it would direct a negotiation between education and child welfare over transportation costs. Their legislation would require local school agencies to have a designated contact within the school if the child welfare agency has a designated contact. To avoid undercutting the support for homeless children and youth, in schools that are considered a “high needs school” the point of contact must be a different person than the school liaison assigned to monitor homeless children and youth as outlined under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
The House passed legislation out of committee before the congressional February break and a few weeks later attempted to move the bill on the House floor but pulled the legislation when it appeared their were not enough Republican votes to deliver a majority. That bill would do away with many of the current law mandates and funding requirements. Congressman John Kline (R-MN), chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee has indicated that he would like to have the bill voted on soon with his goal is to have a conference committee with Senate counter parts after the Senate has acted on its bill. He has indicated that if the timing works right the Congress would have a bill on the President’s desk by the end of this year.