ESEA Reauthorization and Expanded Learning Time

This week, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the federal government’s most comprehensive education law.  The new bill, called the Every Child Achieves Act, would replace the law currently known as No Child Left Behind or NCLB.  The House of Representatives passed its own version of an ESEA reauthorization bill last week; however the House Republican version of the bill passed without any support from congressional Democrats and would face a veto by President Obama if it ever reached his desk.

The Senate bill contains changes that are important for expanded learning time schools.  Most notably, the bill reauthorizes the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program with full flexibility for local communities to choose expanded learning time.  Under the old NCLB statute, the 21st Century program was restricted to “non-school” hours, allowing communities to fund only before school, after school, and summer programs, but preventing them from providing expanding learning opportunities to all students in a school by expanding school hours.  The new law would fix that problem by extending the flexibility to include ELT schools to all states, building on the progress some states have already made under the Obama Administration’s ESEA Flexibility Waivers.

This change is a major step forward, especially after the original version of the Senate bill completely eliminated the 21st Century program.  After a compromise was negotiated that included ELT schools, along with out-of-school time (OST) programs, the 21st Century program gained enough support among both Democrats and Republicans to be added back into the bill during committee consideration.

The Senate bill also would replace the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program with a state-level school improvement fund to help districts turn around their lowest-performing schools.  For districts that choose to use expanded-time schools as a turnaround model, the state could use these funds to support the district with either ELT technical assistance or by directly supporting school-level costs.

The House bill includes a similar state-level school improvement fund that could be used to support ELT.  Their bill, however, would eliminate 21st Century as a stand-alone program.  Instead, both ELT schools and OST programs would be allowable uses of funds under a much larger block-grant program that also allows for many other uses of the funds.  This block grant program and the House bill itself was widely opposed by advocates for ELT schools and OST programs, as well as civil rights and education reform organizations, many business coalitions, and teachers unions.

President Obama has said he would veto the House version of the bill, but has been more measured in his comments about the Senate bill.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has praised the progress the Senate made through its bipartisan approach to the law and said that he hopes to work with Congress to add meaningful accountability provisions to the Senate bill that would require states to intervene and support districts to improve their lowest-achieving schools, high schools with graduation rates below 67 percent, and schools with persistent achievement gaps for at-risk children. 

The House and Senate bills will now go to a conference committee where Members of Congress will try to resolve the many differences between the bills and work with the President to craft a final version that could pass in both chambers and that the President would be willing to sign into law.  It will be a very difficult needle to thread and we are unlikely to know if a resolution can be reached until late in 2015.