December 9, 2015

Senate Approves K-12 Overhaul

Whitehouse Helped Craft Law to Replace Broken, Burdensome No Child Left Behind

Washington, DC – The U.S. Senate today voted to ease the burdensome requirements of the No Child Left Behind education law, help reduce reliance on high-stakes testing, and expand access to a quality education for all students.  The bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which updates federal elementary and secondary education policies, was approved by a vote of 85-12.  The legislation, having already been acted on by the House of Representatives, will now be signed into law by President Obama.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) was closely involved in drafting the bill and negotiating the final package with his House and Senate colleagues, and it includes a number of provisions of importance to Rhode Island schools. 

  • The new law will require states to help schools get out from under burdensome regulations that can serve as barriers to tailored, school-based innovation. 
  • It creates new tools to identify and support middle school students at risk of dropping out.
  • It will help keep students in juvenile justice facilities from falling further behind in their education, and support students in addiction recovery. 
  • The legislation encourages school districts to work with community-based organizations to improve afterschool programs. 
  • It offers grants to bolster history and civics education. 
  • Whitehouse worked with Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) to include language to support school libraries, media centers, and related teacher training.

“I asked Rhode Island teachers, unions, reformers, school administrators, and parents how our nation’s education policies could best support our students,” said Whitehouse.  “They all agreed the current law, No Child Left Behind, was broken, and they gave me thoughtful feedback that guided my efforts in Washington.  Through good-faith, bipartisan debate and compromise, Congress has forged a new law that advances our common goal of providing all children the best possible education.”  As a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Whitehouse played a key role in drafting the comprehensive legislation.  He also served on the joint House-Senate conference committee tasked with negotiating a compromise between the two chambers’ bills.

ESSA will permit states to design their own accountability systems, giving them the discretion to consider a broad range of indicators of school quality—not just test scores.  ESSA also frees public schools from the old law’s one-size-fits-all federal sanctions, allowing states and school districts to develop their own approaches to improve struggling schools.  While ESSA scales back the federal government’s role in K-12 education, it maintains important guardrails to ensure that all students have the opportunity to attain a quality public education.  

“We deeply appreciate Senator Whitehouse’s work to incorporate language into the ESEA Reauthorization that recognizes the unique challenges faced by urban school districts like ours,” said Providence Schools Superintendent Christopher N. Maher.  “The additional resources and new programs in this important legislation will help to improve learning for our children and our wider Providence Schools community.”

“As the superintendent of an urban school district in Rhode Island who is focused on finding innovative and effective ways to help my students achieve at higher levels, I am a strong supporter of this legislation,” said Victor Capellan, Central Falls, RI, School District Superintendent.  “Senator Whitehouse has spent countless hours and invested significant energy in reaching out, listening to, and collaborating with educators from across the state to help craft this legislation.  I believe that this bill represents a huge step forward for educators to be able to do the work and invest the resources where it matters—in the classroom.”

As Rhode Island Attorney General, Whitehouse saw firsthand that chronic truancy in middle school is often an early warning for students.  He worked to ensure the new law will help identify and support middle schoolers at risk of dropping out, putting them on the right track before they get to high school. 

“The Rhode Island Middle Level Educators (RIMLE) are pleased that the Every Student Succeeds Act is moving to fruition,” said RIMLE Executive Director Patricia Marcotte, Principal of Ponaganset Middle School in North Scituate, RI.  “Our organization has been working with Senator Whitehouse since 2007 to garner support for the middle level in federal legislation to support the work of the stakeholders and leaders within the states.  We are especially pleased that the Conferees’ intend that the States describe how the unique needs of students will be met, especially those students at the middle and high school levels.  It is significant that the States are being asked to ‘provide professional development to teachers, principals, other school leaders, and other school personnel to ensure the academic and developmental needs of middle and high school students are met.’  This will be a major assist to the stakeholders as they work with our middle level students.  RIMLE thanks our Senators for their support of middle level educators and students in RI and we look forward to continuing our work with Senator Whitehouse.”

The law includes an amendment offered by Whitehouse and Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) to expand drug and violence prevention grants to provide recovery support services to students working to overcome addiction.          

“We thank Senator Whitehouse for the amendment to the education bill to improve drug and violence prevention,” said Maria Montanaro, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals.  “Sadly, in this day and age, education regarding drugs and violence is imperative for children to help them recognize risk factors, recover from substance use, and promote mental health wellness.  We applaud the Senator for his work to protect the health of our children and encourage positive community action.”

“We face formidable challenges: the availability of prescribed opioids and the increased accessibility of heroin/fentanyl, new forms of nicotine delivery, and the escalation of marijuana use among youth,” said Sarah C. Dinklage, Executive Director of Rhode Island Student Assistance Services.  “This bill will help schools and communities address these challenges by taking advantage of windows of opportunity and evidence-based strategies to prevent and treat substance use disorders and related problems.  Promoting health and safety in our schools is paramount not only to each young person’s successful education, but to the success of our state and our country as a whole.”

Also included in the final bill is a provision to promote afterschool partnerships between school districts and community organizations, modeled after legislation Whitehouse wrote with Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI).

“The Providence After School Alliance is extremely grateful to Senator Whitehouse for his tireless work to ensure that the Every Student Succeeds Act expands opportunities for all students,” said Hillary Salmons, Executive Director, Providence After School Alliance.  “Senator Whitehouse has always been a champion for the role that both schools and community partners can play in creating transformational educational experiences for young people in Rhode Island and nationwide.  We and our partners in Every Hour Counts are delighted to see that ESSA promotes high-quality partnerships originally proposed in S.580/H.R. 1188, The Community Partnerships in Education Act, introduced by Senator Whitehouse and Congressman Cicilline, respectively.” 

A full summary of the bill can be found here.  The bill has garnered widespread support from groups and advocates, which can be found here.


Press Contact

Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921