Focus on cutting red tape, hiring skilled teachers

I can’t say so for sure, but I bet if a rally were held on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, or frankly anywhere, to defend the status quo on education, nobody would show up.

It’s been more than 10 years since No Child Left Behind was signed into law. Despite the clear need for an update, the law has not been fixed, largely because critical issues in Washington are often overwhelmed by partisan politics.

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But now, under the committed leadership of Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), we have a unique opportunity to enact bipartisan reform. It’s time the burden of proof shifts from those who want to change the system to those who want to keep it the same.

The answers won’t come from Washington, but Washington can play a key role in setting high standards and goals and empowering educators and students to meet them.

Our role in education reform should not be to enact more mandates. In fact, we should look for ways to cut red tape and remove barriers to success.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and I have introduced a bill to examine existing education regulations at all levels of government and assessments in our schools to figure out what’s working, what’s not and where we need to focus reforms.

Schools and school districts need more flexibility to innovate and make decisions in the best interests of children while still remaining accountable to all students.

We must ensure that all of our children are learning from the best teachers. Studies show that nothing makes a bigger difference to student learning than great teaching. Yet we’ve done a lousy job of hiring, supporting and retaining talented teachers, especially in the classrooms where they’re needed most.

The president’s budget included a version of my proposed Presidential Teacher Corps that would train a new generation of diverse teachers to serve in high-need schools. I will also push to support and expand programs to provide districts with opportunities to take new approaches to recruit new talent to the profession.

Schools need great leaders to thrive. We must attract and support the best principals to work in the lowest performing schools. That’s why I’ve introduced the LEAD Act to help prepare principals to lead transformations to turn around our lowest performing schools.

Congress can also ensure that our sparse federal dollars go to the disadvantaged children they were intended to serve, while also encouraging more equitable spending locally among schools.

Title I is designed to provide low-income schools with additional resources to meet high needs. To receive Title I assistance, districts must demonstrate they are allocating their state and local resources equally among their high- and low-poverty schools.

Due to a loophole, however, school districts can comply with this requirement without accounting for actual dollars going into each school, but rather by using the average teacher salary across the district within their school budgets. Lower-income schools, which often do not attract more experienced, higher salaried teachers, are “budgeted” at a salary rate that doesn’t reflect the actual dollars spent on salaries. Therefore, districts often inadvertently end up providing more local funding to schools in affluent areas because they attract higher salaried teachers.

As a result, even with Title I assistance, low-income schools end up with less funding than higher-income schools. In effect, low-income schools end up subsidizing their higher income counterparts. I have joined with Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) to close the long-standing loophole so that we are no longer one of only a few developed nations that invests more into our most advantaged schools than our least advantaged schools.

My time as superintendent at the Denver Public Schools system taught me that progress on public education, while not easy, is possible. It is also essential. Ensuring our children receive a quality education is critical to maintaining our competitive edge in the global economy.

My visits in schools and with parents and teachers in Colorado and across the country have convinced me that if we work together, put politics aside and listen to the voices from outside of Washington and closest to our children, we can reform our schools and build a future where our children and grandchildren thrive.

Bennet is a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.