Legislative Update: Washington looks at ESEA and teacher evaluation, Texas Senate aims at tax relief

The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) conducted another hearing this morning on issues surrounding reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The hearing was entitled “Fixing No Child Left Behind: Supporting Teachers and School Leaders,” and today’s witness list included one Texas educator —Saul Hinojosa, the superintendent of Somerset ISD.

Much of the testimony today focused on teacher evaluation. Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) expressed his desire to let states and districts decide how to use available federal dollars to improve teacher evaluation locally rather than putting in place more federal mandates. “It’s tempting to try to improve teachers from Washington,” said Alexander, but he noted that many of the federal attempts to encourage and reward effective teaching have been overly bureaucratic and impractical and have “made harder something that was already hard to do.”

Alexander noted in his opening remarks that several states had missed out on ESEA waivers due to their inability or unwillingness to accept federal mandates regarding teacher evaluation. Alexander made no specific mention of Texas, which as we reported last week, has recently been warned by the U.S. Department of Education that its proposal to overhaul teacher evaluations would not meet federal expectations. Local control over evaluations and personnel decisions is now at the heart of the disconnect between the Texas Education Agency’s proposed evaluation changes and the evaluation reform principles that the Obama administration attached as a condition to ESEA waivers. As stated by ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter in an interview yesterday for the publication Quorum Report about the ongoing waiver talks, “Any successful improvement of the public school system has always come from the bottom up. Local control is absolutely necessary in order to have a successful system.”

While it is clear that many Republicans in Congress share Alexander’s professed support for local control and interest in moving away from top-down mandates for teacher evaluation, the role of testing continues to be a sticking point in negotiations and conversations about fixing ESEA/NCLB. The first witness at today’s hearing, Dr. Dan Goldhaber of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research, opened his remarks by telling the committee, “One thing about NCLB I hope does not change is the annual testing requirement.” He talked about the importance of having a “common yardstick to make judgments about teachers.”

At today’s hearing, Somerset’s Hinojosa talked about his district’s use of a Teacher Incentive Fund grant to pilot the TAP teacher evaluation model. Another witness, Seattle teacher Rachelle Moore, spoke about the challenges of recruiting, supporting, and retaining teachers in high-poverty schools. She and other witnesses highlighted the value of induction and mentoring programs for teachers, including those modeled after medical residencies, and they discussed the importance of giving schools adequate resources to address the needs of the whole child, such as basic nutrition and health care to ensure that students are ready to learn.

The committee’s next hearing related to ESEA reauthorization will be a roundtable discussion about “Innovation to Better Meet the Needs of Students.” It is scheduled for 10 a.m. EST on Tuesday, Feb. 3. Visit the committee’s website to watch live or archived video of any of these hearings and stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates.


Back here at home, the Texas Senate is moving forward after last week’s announcement of new committee assignments and a vote to change its rules for debate. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has tapped Sen. Larry Taylor (R–Friendswood) to chair the Senate Education committee, retaining Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D–Brownsville) as its vice-chairman. Under the chairmanship of Patrick in 2013, Taylor was a member of the Senate Education committee last session — his first after being elected to the Senate. Taylor previously served in the Texas House for a decade. His background is in the insurance industry.

The other members of the Senate Education committee are Senators Donna Campbell (R-San Antonio), Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), José Rodriguez (D-El Paso), Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), and Royce West (D-Dallas), joined by freshman Senators Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), Don Huffines (R-Dallas), Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), and Van Taylor (R-Plano).

Among the Senate’s first orders of business is proposing billions in tax cuts. In a base budget proposal released today, the Senate has called for $3 billion in property tax relief. Property taxes are the primary revenue source for public education in Texas. The Senate’s budget proposal, which is higher than the House’s budget starting point, includes funding for enrollment growth and new money for career counseling at the middle school level and for training teachers of students in kindergarten through third grades in math and reading.

Patrick also announced his appointment of new advisory boards to guide the Senate on reforms ranging from education to taxes to securing the border. The boards include business and industry leaders and several directors of Tea Party groups in Texas.

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