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House Readies Bills on Program Elimination, Flexibility

Renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is still moving slowly in the U.S. Senate, but the House Education and the Workforce Committee seems ready to act on Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.'s plan to move a series of smaller, more targeted bills, advocates say.

Education advocates are expecting the very first bill could come as early as the end of this week. That measure, which is still under discussion, would seek to slim down the U.S. Department of Education by permanently scrapping a number of smaller programs that lawmakers say aren't effective.

No word on the final list yet, but I'm hearing that it would likely include many of the programs that were defunded in the most recent budget bill. (That legislation scrapped Striving Readers, Literacy Through School Libraries, Gifted Education, and a number of other small programs.)

And if I were a betting woman, I'd keep my eye on the programs that President Obama proposed for consolidation in his fiscal 2012 budget request.

It's important to note the distinction here between what the administration proposed and what folks say the committee wants to do. The administration wants to move money from many smaller programs and funnel it into broad funding streams. For instance, under the administration's plan, a number of smaller teacher training programs would be scrapped, but the money would go into one competitive pot aimed at improving teacher quality.

But under a House bill under discussion, programs deemed ineffective would be eliminated entirely to save taxpayer dollars, not funneled to other funding streams, advocates say.

New Flexibility

Separately, Kline is planning to introduce another bill sometime soon that would give significantly more funding flexibility to districts in using federal dollars. There's a summary of the proposal here, based on one organization's discussions with committee staff. In a nutshell, the proposal, which has not yet been finalized, would give school districts much more freedom to transfer money between the legislation's various titles, or programs.

Right now, school districts have limited flexibility to move money around. They can move about 50 percent of funding out of some pots. But very few districts take advantage of that leeway. And, even if a district does move money out of a particular pot, it is still subject to the reporting requirements for that particular program.

Under the bill now being prepared, if districts feel they need extra money for, say, English-language learners, they would be allowed to transfer all of the money they're getting from say, Title II (which governs teacher training) into Title III (which deals with ELLs).

And schools could even move money from programs authorized under the ESEA into special education state grants.

(There's just one big exception here: Schools couldn't move money into Impact Aid, which helps districts with a big federal presence make up for lost property tax revenue. That could be because Impact Aid is a very flexible pot of money. The funds can be used for general operating expenses and even for facilities.)

And the bill would make another technical—but very important—change to federal reporting requirements, which some school officials consider onerous and time-consuming, but which some advocates say are crucial to insure that schools are serving certain groups of students well.

Under this change, if a district moves all of its money from a particular pot—say, funding for homeless students—it would be freed from reporting requirements for that particular program. There would be just two key exceptions to this: The Title III program, which funds ELLs, and Title I, which finances disadvantaged children. Schools would be able to move money from those pots to other funding streams, but they would still be subject to the reporting requirements for those programs.

It's important to note that neither of these bills have been introduced yet, so the legislative language could change.

Mixed Reaction

So far, at least one organization seems pretty excited about the flexibility bill: the American Association of School Administrators.

"We see this as a strong parallel" with the increased rhetoric around local control, said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of policy and advocacy at the AASA. As schools struggle to cope with the end of funding from the federal economic-stimulus program, they'll welcome the chance to move dollars around. "Flexibility can be as good new money," she said.

The only caveat? Ellerson's worried that the proposed increased flexibility could take the pressure off lawmakers to boost funding for education. Read more about the AASA's views here

But the National Education Association is less than thrilled with what it's hearing from folks on Capitol Hill about the legislation.

Mary Kusler, the manager of federal advocacy for the NEA, said that a number of schools are already struggling to find funding for students in poverty, ELLs, and other special populations. She's worried those groups could be shortchanged under the bill, if there aren't changes before it's introduced.

"We believe in the fundamental principle that the federal government should fund these groups of children," she said. "If the federal government isn't providing money for high-poverty students and ELLs, among other special populations ... who else will?"

UPDATE:
Check out this editorial by Rep. Kline, in which he lays out the case for expanded flexibility.

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