Catholic schools give high marks to sweeping new federal education law

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

By Carol Zimmermann

(CNS) — When President Barack Obama signed the sweeping bipartisan legislation
Every Student Succeeds Act Dec. 10, he described it as a “Christmas

“This is an early Christmas
present. After more than 10 years, members of Congress from both parties have
come together to revise our national education law,” he said.

The other part of the miracle
might be that the legislation — which aims to do away with excessive school
testing and give states and local governments more control of schools by freeing
them from federal mandates — also provides something for Catholic school

The measure, overwhelmingly
approved by the House and Senate, also was endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops’ Committee on Catholic Education, the National Catholic Educational
Association and the Council for American Private Education.

Archbishop George J. Lucas of
Omaha, Nebraska, committee chairman, said the act demonstrates “broad bipartisan
agreement on restoring equitable treatment of private schools and ensuring that
all children are afforded the education services, benefits and opportunities
they deserve, regardless of the type of school they attend.”

The act reauthorizes the
Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the 1965 federal law that provides
funds to local and state education agencies for elementary and secondary education
programs. That law was updated and enacted in 2002 as the No Child Left Behind Act.

No Child Left Behind has been up
for reauthorization since 2007. Previous attempts to renew it have been tangled
up in ongoing debates about the federal government’s role in public education.

The previous law was often
criticized for its emphasis on testing. With the new law, students will still be
required to take annual state tests in reading and math, but there will be reduced
pressure on schools to perform well. In addition, teacher evaluations will no longer be tied to students’ performance on the tests.

A statement from the NCEA
pointed out that during the past few years, it has been involved, along with representatives
of the U.S. bishops and the Council for American Private Education, in discussions with
congressional lawmakers about inequities in the No Child Left Behind Law “regarding
participation of students and teachers in religious and private schools.”

It said that since 2001, “the
benefits available to those in private schools have diminished significantly
due to funding formulas in the last reauthorization and their interpretations
in U.S. Department of Education regulations and policy.”

The new law “corrects those
inequities and improves the protection of services for private school children,”
particularly with Title I funding, according to the December newsletter of the Council for American Private Education.

Title I, which was part of the
original Elementary and Secondary Education Act, provides financial assistance
to school districts and schools with high numbers or percentages of children
from low-income families.

The new law has specific
language about the availability and division of equitable funds for services based
on input from public and private school personnel.

NCEA said the new allocation of
funding restores “the equity that has long been part” of the Elementary
and Secondary Act’s “tradition of providing benefits to our students and

The group, which represents the
nation’s Catholic schools, said it will provide dioceses and schools with
information in the upcoming months about how to obtain benefits from the new

One aspect of the new education law
that is not inducing cheers and might even be drawing quiet sighs from Catholic
school officials, is its failure to include school choice funding.

This omission is clear in the
law’s wording of “no Title I portability.” This means federal funds for
disadvantaged students will not be able to follow students to the public school
of his or her choice.

This wording should come as no
surprise for those on both sides of the issue as it was wrestled with while the
bill was fine-tuned in recent months. Obama had threatened to veto the bill if
it included the ability to move Title I funds because he said it would unfairly
redirect federal money from high-poverty to low-poverty districts.

Some House Republicans also wanted
Title I aid to be extended to private schools, which is not included in the new

Another aspect of the law that is
likely to catch some attention is its treatment of Common Core State Standards
— a state-led initiative of expectations for
students to master in each grade level that has been tied into federal
education grants.

The new law changes
that, saying federal agencies are prohibited from incentivizing, requiring or
conditioning the acceptance of federal funds based on their adoption of Common
Core standards or any other set of specific academic standards. The law also notes
that states can withdraw from the Common Core program with no financial penalty.

This will
likely please some, and not be enough for others.

And the law’s
accolades for being an improvement over the previous education law is not
enough to applaud it some say.

A Dec. 10 Los
Angeles Times editorial said the new law should not just be better than it was
but provide a blueprint for improving education.”The federal government
spends billions of dollars on low-income schools in an effort to level the
playing field and improve social mobility through public education. It has a
right and a responsibility to ensure that it’s getting its money’s worth for
the billions of dollars it invests in low-income schools,” it says.

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