Senate ESEA Reauthorization Bill Supports Expanded Learning Time

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee voted 12-10 today to pass the Strengthening America’s Schools Act, which would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The Strengthening America’s Schools Act builds upon many of the elements of the bipartisan 2011 reauthorization bill that also passed the Committee, while adding stronger accountability measures and taking into account the progress states have made since 2011 under the ESEA Flexibility Waivers issued by the Obama administration. (The 2011 bill did not get a vote in the full Senate.) This year’s version also made significant advances to promote more and better learning time by preserving existing and adding new expanded learning time provisions.

We are pleased to report that the bill includes language that will enable states and districts to continue using expanded learning time (ELT) as a whole-school reform strategy. First, it will provide greater flexibility in the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, giving communities the ability to choose to use funding for high-quality expanded learning time in addition to before school, after school, and summer learning programs. This new flexibility would allow any district the option to choose expanded learning time, if it best suits its needs, as districts can in the 22 states have already responded to their districts’ interest in ELT by adding the program through their ESEA Flexibility Waivers.

Second, like the 2011 bill, the Strengthening America’s Schools Act writes into statute several school improvement models for the key program that targets the nation’s lowest-performing schools – the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program.  The most important and frequently used models, Transformation and Turnaround, benefit greatly from the inclusion of “increased learning time” in the current regulations. Earlier versions of the statute would have taken increased learning time out of the requirements for the SIG program, but thanks to a crucial amendment by Senator Kay Hagan (NC) and cosponsored by Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA), this important element of the SIG program was added to the statute.

Over 1,000 schools serving more than 520,000 students in 36 states and the District of Columbia are expanding learning time. Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School, once a struggling school in Boston, MA, became a SIG school in 2009. By effectively increasing learning time and implementing other key turnaround strategies, the school has undergone a dramatic turnaround.  Thanks to Senator Hagan’s amendment, the law will support current SIG schools as they build on this progress, and it will help ensure that new applicants benefit from using increased learning time as a comprehensive strategy for school reform. 

NCTL wants to applaud Chairman Harkin (IA) for his longstanding leadership on expanded learning time, and Senators Hagan and Warren for their passionate advocacy for ELT schools in North Carolina, Massachusetts, and throughout the nation. The bill must now move to the full Senate for a vote before it can be conferenced with the House’s ESEA reauthorization bill, which is scheduled for a hearing and amendments next week. We’ll continue to track ESEA’s reauthorization progress through Congress and what it means for expanding learning time on this blog.