ESEA Bill Passes With “Well-Rounded” Education Provision

On Oct. 20, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) completed its markup of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The bill includes an amendment, offered by Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., that would create a “well-rounded” education fund. School districts could use the money to fund programs in history, civics education, social studies and eight other subject areas.

The ESEA bill passed 15-7, with the support of all the committee Democrats and Republican Senators Enzi (Wyo.-ranking member), Alexander (Tenn.) and Kirk (Ill.). The Casey amendment was agreed to by voice vote.

Thank you to all who responded to NCH alerts this week urging the HELP Committee to adopt the Casey “well-rounded” education amendment. It clearly made the difference.

“Well-rounded” education grants would be made from the U.S. Department of Education to the States. The States in turn would decide which Local Education Agencies (LEAs) receive funding through a competitive subgrants process. The amendment encourages partnerships with non-profit organizations, institutions of higher education or other state education agencies.

In addition to history, civics and social studies other subject areas eligible for grants include the arts; economics; environmental education; financial literacy; foreign languages; geography; health education; and physical education.

The new “well rounded” education program is targeted at low-income, high-need districts, which includes students with disabilities and English learners. The LEAs must identify in their application the academic subject areas for which they are seeking funds. This is keeping with the ideological thrust of the bill, providing maximum flexibility to school districts to spend federal dollars on what they identify as their own priorities such as professional development for teachers and the development and implementation of “high-quality curricula.”

History would be competing for funding with the subject areas mentioned above at the local level. So there would be no guaranteed federal funding stream for history professional development as there was under the Teaching American History (TAH) grants program, which would cease to exist.

While this is by no means an ideal solution, given the current emphasis on deficit reduction and drive to push decisions on education spending to the localities, it does ensure that federal funds will still be available for history education and professional development, albeit at a much lower level. We will continue to advocate for the restoration of the Teaching American History grants program; but with neither Congress nor the White House willing to keep TAH on the table, we also need to exert effective pressure in favor of the Harkin/Enzi bill that is actually in play.

Chairman Harkin has stated he intends to bring the ESEA bill to the Senate floor before Thanksgiving, with the hope a final bill could be worked out with the House by the end of the year. Whether that happens remains to be seen.

There is no comparable comprehensive ESEA reauthorization bill in the House. Instead a number of piecemeal bills addressing specific sections of the ESEA have been introduced. In May, the House Education and Workforce Committee passed H.R. 1891, the “Setting New Priorities in Education Act, which would eliminate 43 programs at the Department of Education including Teaching American History (TAH) grants.

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