Ninth District Congressman Adam Smith today unveiled legislation to restructure the federal role in K-12 education.

“Currently the federal government places too much emphasis on process, bureaucracy, and paperwork, and not nearly enough on flexibility, local control, and results,” Smith said. “We need a system that is more flexible, more controlled by locals, and focused on results. My legislation would do just that.”

Smith will formally introduce the Empowering Local Schools Act (ELSA) upon Congress’s return in late January.

Smith went to Tyee High School, his alma mater, in the Highline School District this morning. He was joined by Highline Superintendent Dr. Joseph McGeehan, a supporter of the bill.

Smith and various Pierce and Thurston County education professionals then introduced the legislation at Franklin Pierce High School this afternoon. “His [Adam Smith’s] proposed bill will add flexibility and enhance the ability of school districts to target local needs,” said Yelm Superintendent Alan Burke. “In Yelm we have been frustrated by the enormous paperwork burden that we endure to capture federal funds in grant programs such as Eisenhower Math and Science and Goals 2000.”

ELSA is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which governs the vast majority of K-12 federal education programs. ESEA was last reauthorized in 1994 and Congress must reauthorize it again this year.

ESEA authorizes more than sixty programs, from broad programs such as Title 1, which provides extra funding for low-income students, to narrow programs such as native Hawaiian education and School-to-Work Opportunities Grant. Smith argues that the current system has created confusion and red tape for local school districts who need federal funding.

“Under current law, some federal education programs are distributed through formulas that take poverty and population into consideration, while others are grant programs that school districts must apply for,” Smith explained. “Then, schools have to document exactly how they’re spending the money in each program. This puts our schools into a straitjacket because they have very little discretion and flexibility. For example, if a school receives funding under the much-touted 100,000 teachers program, but they really need to invest more money into keeping their new teachers instead of hiring brand-new ones, they can’t do it. We need to give local schools more flexibility so that they can tailor federal funding to their school’s needs.”

Smith’s legislation would condense existing programs into six funding streams and send the money directly to local school districts. The funds would be largely distributed through a formula based on poverty and population. “This will basically eliminate school districts’ need to hire professional grant writers so that they can receive federal funding,” Smith noted. “Instead, schools will be able to rely on a certain federal funding level, with the neediest school districts receiving the most money.”

The funding streams would be:

  • Title 1 – Disadvantaged students ELSA retains Title 1 but makes two important changes: it allows schools more flexibility in using Title 1 funds and targets funds more towards low-income schools.
  • Limited English Proficient Students Smith’s legislation consolidates existing programs that focus on non-English speakers (the 12 Bilingual Education grant programs and Emergency Immigrant Education) into one funding stream that gives local schools flexibility in choosing methods of instruction.
  • Professional Development ELSA consolidates existing teacher training and hiring initiatives such as the Eisenhower Professional Development Program, Goals 2000, and the 100,000 Teachers program into one fund to be used for hiring new teachers, teacher training, teacher pay, and lowering class size.
  • Education Reform/Innovative Practices ELSA consolidates other existing ESEA programs, such as Technology in Education programs, the Safe and Drug Free Schools Act, school-to-work programs, literacy programs, and after-school programs, into one fund distributed to local schools to be used for a wide variety of priorities based on the school district’s needs.
  • Public School Choice ELSA strengthens federal efforts to assist local school districts’ efforts to promote public school choice. It condenses the current magnet school and charter school laws into one program and increases funding.
  • Impact Aid The legislation maintains current law as it relates to Impact Aid, which supports those school districts that have a large amount of federal property, such as military bases, to make up for the lower property tax base.
  • Accountability ELSA eliminates current law’s program-by-program process-based evaluation and instead includes funding for the state education agency to monitor the use of the federal funds. Local school districts are required to establish five-year goal plans for each of the above categories. States will annually monitor progress towards the goals, and if local school districts are failing to meet their goals, the state must work with the local school district to set up a plan for corrective action. After three years, if the district or school is failing in any category and not taking appropriate corrective action, the state may take over the administration of the school district or individual school

Smith hopes to bring these new ideas into Congress’s debate over ESEA reauthorization. “I think it’s important that we move towards more flexibility, more local control, and less bureaucracy,” he said. “I will be working with my colleagues to ensure that we move in that direction.”