April 16, 2015

Senate Committee Approves Education Overhaul

Legislation Includes Several Provisions Championed by Sen. Whitehouse and Protects Funding for Low-Income School Districts

Washington, DC – The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) today approved bipartisan legislation to reform our nation’s education system.  The bill reauthorizes and updates the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was last overhauled in 2001 with President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program.  The reauthorization approved today lessens the testing burdens imposed by the Bush program and reduces the federal government’s footprint in evaluating teachers and schools – allowing states and municipalities to design policies that best address the unique needs of individual communities.

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is a member of the HELP Committee and played an active role in crafting the reauthorization bill.  

“For months now, I’ve been reaching out to Rhode Island teachers, parents, school administrators, and community leaders about the problems with our current education system and the changes they would like to see,” Senator Whitehouse said.  “Over and over I heard the same things: we need to protect federal funding for local districts, give more control to teachers and local officials to design education plans, and get rid of high-stakes testing that has harmed students and teachers by placing far too much emphasis on test scores.  I’m proud that the bill we approved today addresses these concerns.  Our most important goal in this debate is to provide all of our kids with the best possible education, and this bill is a good step toward achieving that goal.”

Whitehouse joined fellow Democrats to successfully prevent inclusion of a Republican proposal that would have turned federal funding from the bill’s Title I provision into a voucher for individual children rather than providing it directly to school districts.  The change would have undermined an important source of funding for urban school districts like Providence and Central Falls that have high concentrations of low-income students.  Whitehouse personally urged HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander to remove the so-called “portability” provision, which Alexander ultimately agreed to do.

During the Committee’s public debate this week, when Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) pledged to bring the voucher issue back up on the Senate floor and compared the proposal to the Pell Grants available to college students, Whitehouse immediately objected to the comparison.  “Being from Rhode Island and having long and affectionate relations with Senator Pell, I just have to say a word here rejecting that comparison… We can have this discussion but please let’s not drag Pell Grants into this,” Whitehouse said.  “Nobody should believe that Senator Pell would endorse such an amendment, because I am confident that he would not.”

A number of other provisions championed by Whitehouse were also included in the bill approved today by the Committee, including:

  • Strengthening afterschool programs through community partnerships.  Earlier this year Whitehouse partnered with Congressman David Cicilline on legislation to encourage school districts and community-based organizations to work together to improve the availability and quality of afterschool programming for students.  A version of their legislation was incorporated into the ESEA reauthorization.
  • Juvenile justice improvements.  Whitehouse included language in the bill to require states to improve outcomes for students who interact with the juvenile justice system.  Specifically, the Whitehouse provision will help to ensure that the needs of these children are properly assessed when they enter a juvenile justice facility, that they have access to appropriate education opportunities while they are in such a facility, and that the classroom credits they earn during their time in the juvenile justice system will transfer when they return to a regular school setting.  Overall, these policies are intended to ensure that troubled children who enter the juvenile justice system are given an opportunity to reform their behavior and get ahead, rather than being marginalized and falling further behind in their education.  

Lastly, Whitehouse also worked closely with Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) to add an amendment supporting school libraries and arts education.  The amendment authorizes funding to provide grants to state and local education agencies to increase student access to up-to-date school library materials, well-equipped, technologically advanced school library media centers, and well-trained, professionally certified school library media specialists.  The amendment would also support arts-related community and national outreach programs, as well as programs that provide arts educators with professional development to develop high-quality arts-based instructional programming.

“Effective school library programs are essential for educational success.  I appreciate Senator Whitehouse’s strong advocacy to ensure that the law continues our federal investment in school libraries and literacy programs.  These resources are critical to improving  academic achievement and developing a love reading and life-long learning,” said Senator Reed.

Now that the ESEA reauthorization has been favorably reported out of the HELP Committee it will await consideration by the full Senate.  When the Senate takes the bill up for debate, Whitehouse plans to offer additional amendments, including his Success in the Middle Act and a measure that would allow states and local school districts to encourage school innovation by allowing select locally designed public “innovation schools” to operate free from unnecessarily restrictive local, state, and federal regulations.  Whitehouse hopes that these innovation schools would serve as models for others in the district.


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