Public Policy Update

Better schools, better teachers and better learning opportunities for students have been hot topics on the national agenda, both with the American public and in political circles.

Since the start of 2001, education reform and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) have been on the fast track. In mid-June, Congress wrapped up the first round of debate on the reauthorization of ESEA. As of this writing, both the House and the Senate have overwhelmingly passed their own versions of the ESEA reauthorization bill. In the weeks and months ahead, the differences in the two bills will be resolved by a House/Senate conference committee.

What is ESEA?

ESEA is the major piece of federal legislation for elementary and secondary education programs. The act covers a range of education issues, including education for the disadvantaged, professional development for teachers, school safety and violence prevention, reading and literacy initiatives, and bilingual education. Last year, Congress spent or appropriated close to $18 billion for current ESEA programs. In contrast, the House bill authorizes $23 billion (for 52 programs) and the Senate bill authorizes $41 billion (for 101 programs) for fiscal year 2002, which begins Oct. 1.

Issues of importance to APA

APA's interest in ESEA is as diverse as the bill itself. APA members have relevant expertise in school psychology, cognitive development, school-based and -linked mental health services, literacy, suicide prevention, school safety, and gifted and talented education, as well as broader issues such as child development, child welfare and diversity that are central to APA's mission. APA has been actively involved in advocating for programs under ESEA that will expand opportunities for psychologists or where psychological expertise is particularly relevant. APA's Public Policy Office has advocated on behalf of several key programs.

Among them is the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Improvement Act program, which was adopted by amendments offered by Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) in the House and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) in the Senate. Their efforts included an expansion of the current Elementary School Counseling Demonstration Act to secondary schools. In the House-passed version, the Act was also broadened to include child and adolescent psychiatrists as eligible service providers. During House-floor consideration, Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) engaged in a colloquy (a discussion of provisions for the Congressional Record) with the chair of the Education and Workforce Committee, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), asking the chair to consider the definition of "psychologist." With Rep. Baird and other national organizations, APA worked to include "qualified psychologists" as authorized service providers under the program and has urged members of Congress to adopt this change in the final bill.

In addition, a successful amendment offered in the House by Reps. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), Mark Souder (R-Ind.) and Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) retained the Safe and Drug Free Schools program and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program as separate entities, ensuring that there will be dedicated funding streams for each program. The Safe and Drug Free Schools program provides resources to school districts to support anti-drug efforts, prevention, counseling and other programs, as well as funding for research in this area. The 21st Century Community Learning Centers program provides resources to states and school districts for academic enrichment and other services, including drug and violence prevention programs in partnership with community-based organizations. APA advocated for and supported these changes.

Gifted and talented education is another area of interest to APA members. The Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education program is included in the House-passed version of the ESEA bill. The program currently supports first-rate research designed to build capacity for identifying and meeting the needs of gifted children. Efforts to include an expanded version of the gifted and talented program were not successful in the House, but both Javits and the new gifted and talented program are included in the Senate bill. The new version would enable states to institute innovative programs designed to meet the educational needs of gifted and talented students. Advocates are hopeful that the full Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act of 2001 will be included in the final conferenced version of the ESEA reauthorization.

Both the House and Senate bills include new provisions relating to educational testing that require annual academic assessments in reading and math in grades three through eight--a change from current law, which calls for less frequent, voluntary testing. APA advocated successfully for the adoption of three amendments offered by Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) relating to these testing provisions. The first ensures that newly developed tests comply with the nationally recognized professional and technical standards for such assessments and that the assessments are of adequate technical quality for each purpose for which they are to be used. Another Wellstone amendment rewards states with bonuses for developing the highest quality assessments. Finally, the Senate bill includes a provision, which APA staff helped draft, that authorizes a study to be conducted by the National Research Council to address the impact of high-stakes testing on individual students, teachers, schools and school districts. APA has urged the conferees to maintain these provisions in the final ESEA bill.

The Senate bill includes a number of other programs and provisions that APA is urging conferees to adopt as part of the final ESEA bill. They include new programs for the integration of schools and mental health systems and suicide prevention, as well as language that provides resources for better coordinating services through federal programs.

Areas of concern

In contrast to some of the positive developments in the House and Senate bills, both bodies passed a number of amendments that APA sought to defeat. Working in coalition with other groups and associations, APA continues to advocate for their removal or modification (when possible) during conference committee consideration. The following amendments were adopted despite opposition from APA:

  • IDEA Discipline Amendments: These amendments offered by Reps. Charles Norwood (R-Ga.), Bob Barr (R-Ga.), and Sam Graves (R-Mo.) in the House and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) in the Senate relate to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These amendments, passed in their respective bodies, would allow schools to stop all educational and related services for children with disabilities who threaten or engage in discipline code violations. The conference committee will have to resolve the differences in the two provisions. APA has encouraged the conferees to drop any amendments relating to IDEA and consider them instead during the reauthorization of that act.

  • "Parental Freedom of Information" Amendment: This amendment offered by Reps. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) could impede important school-based research on substance abuse, youth violence and other critical issues, as well as disrupt school-based health and mental health services. The House amendment was adopted by voice vote; there is no Senate companion provision. APA is leading a coalition to work toward ensuring that this provision is not included in the final version of the ESEA reauthorization.

  • Boy Scouts of America Amendment: This amendment, offered by Rep. Van Hilleary (R-Tenn.) in the House and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in the Senate, prohibits the use of federal funds by any state or local educational agency that discriminates against the Boy Scouts of America in providing access to school premises or facilities. APA expressed concern that the amendment intrudes on local decision-making and would grant special (but unneeded) equal access protections to an organization that discriminates against gay youth and adults. While the House and Senate have adopted the same provision, APA will continue to urge conferees to reject these amendments.

Wrap-up

The programs and provisions noted here are but a few of the hundreds of items that will have to be debated and resolved during the conference phase of this process. Even with the strong support that exists in Congress and the White House for the ESEA reauthorization, gaining passage of this bill will require a great deal of work, and considerable compromise. While the White House has expressed hope that this process will be completed shortly, it is more likely that a bill will be sent to the President just prior to the end of the legislative session.