Education Bill Introduced With Key Additions for Private Schools

NEW YORK -

After nearly eight years of negotiations, members of Congress have agreed on a major education funding bill. Community advocates say that the legislation contains key improvements for yeshivos and private schools throughout the country.

This legislation will reauthorize and revise the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which funds local public school districts for specific purposes such as remedial reading, teacher training, speech therapy and occupational therapy. The “Every Student Succeeds Act” represents the first major reform to ESEA since 2001, when “No Child Left Behind” passed. It is the first reauthorization to ESEA since 2007.

Agudath Israel of America worked together with the Council for American Private Education, a major lobbying group that advocates for the interests of secular and religious private schools on the federal level, in campaigning for several key changes to existing legislation. The Orthodox Union also made several significant suggestions to the re-authorization bill.

“ESEA has always required ‘equitable participation’ of private and religious school students but the reality never really lived up to its full promise,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel of America’s vice president for federal affairs and Washington director. “This bill represents a meaningful step forward in better serving these students, including our children attending yeshivos and day schools, particularly in regard to the federal remedial education program, known as Title I.”

Rabbi Cohen said that past versions of ESEA had given “too much” latitude to local school districts in how mandated services were delivered to private schools. “They could basically say ‘too bad’ any time that they did not want to use funds for private schools,” he said.

Among the provisions included in the bill regarding private schools are: a broader consultation process between school boards and private schools, greater accountability on the part of school districts in their delivery or denial of services, and easier recourse to state and federal authorities in the event services are denied. The programs authorized by ESEA have also been expanded.

Local boards will also be required to distribute funds to qualified private schools in the fiscal year in which the funds were received, which will diminish the potential for waste or misuse of funds.

To help ensure equity for private school students and teachers, the bill will require the state education agency to create an ombudsman position to monitor and enforce the equitable services provision. Private schools will thus have an advocate within the state agency administering the education policy.

“The revisions to the ESEA provided within H.R.5 [the House’s version of the bill] will better protect access for low-income and learning-challenged students in non-public schools,” said Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy for the Orthodox Union.

ESEA first became law in 1965 as part of the Johnson administration’s “war on poverty.” Its provisions are supposed to be reviewed and adjusted every five years. Struggles over a wide range of issues held Congress back from introducing this re-authorization. However, now that key players in both parties have come to an agreement, easy passage is expected.

Rabbi Cohen said that while the legislation was a victory for private schools on many fronts, still, advocates had hoped for clearer definitions of “failures” on the part of school districts to service non-public institutions, a more robust consultation process, as well as several other technical points that were not included in the final draft.

“This bill has been a long time coming, with much sweat invested in it,” he said. “Our schools and our children will hopefully enjoy its benefits.”