Meanwhile in Washington

by Beth Camplain | Feb 27, 2015
It’s been an eventful month here in Illinois, so you may have missed something important happening in Washington, DC.

How about some good political news on a cold Friday afternoon?

It’s been an eventful month here in Illinois, so you may have missed something important happening in Washington, DC.

The U.S. House of Representatives continues to debate the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, H.R. 5). Along with the American Federation of Teachers, we don't support this rewrite of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for several reasons around funding equity and accountability. (Read more on this from AFT President Randi Weingarten in “Getting Back to the Real Purpose of ESEA”)

But, we do have a critical victory to report – with some Illinois pride. Yesterday, Rep. Mike Quigley (IL-5) offered an amendment to restore the qualification requirements for paraprofessionals working in high-poverty schools—requirements that existed in the original NCLB but had been removed from this legislation. Under NCLB, this provision stopped school districts from hiring paras with little experience in education and mandated that they provide training.

The bipartisan amendment to restore this protection passed last night on a 218-201 vote, with 35 (!) Republicans in support, including five from Illinois. Keep in mind, the U.S. House is a conservative chamber who often loathe to support Democratic initiatives, however common sense they might be.

Check out this video of Rep. Quigley advocating for the paraprofessional amendment.

“In order to support our students, we must support those who work hard to educate them, and we appreciate Congressman Quigley's leadership," said IFT President Dan Montgomery. “No Child Left Behind got a lot of things very wrong, but giving our schools the highly qualified paraprofessionals our students deserve was something it got right, and we must restore these requirements to support our teachers, paraprofessionals, and students.”

IFT Secretary-Treasurer Marcia Campbell, who served as a paraprofessional for nearly 30 years at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville, knows this firsthand.

"We must ensure that paraprofessionals are qualified to provide much-needed instructional support, support that is often targeted to students who are struggling academically or who need additional help, such as English learners, or students with disabilities. That support is crucial to students, parents, and teachers, particularly in communities where resources are scarce and children are already at a disadvantage,” said Campbell.

The AFT was the first union to organize paraprofessionals and school-related personnel. This week's victory is a good reminder of that proud history.

H.R. 5 was expected to be approved in the House today with no Democratic support but internal disputes within the GOP majority over components of this bill and continued funding for the Department of Homeland Security knocked it off of the House floor, until at least next week. However, when a bill does move to the Senate it would include this important paraprofessional amendment.

“Congress has been given the chance to pass an education bill that would invest in education. Instead, Republicans offered a plan that takes from poor kids and gives to rich schools. Our teachers and students deserve better,” said Rep. Quigley.

About ESEA:
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act – also known as No Child Left Behind – was last reauthorized in 2001. The Obama Administration has called for a bipartisan overhaul which ensures all students are prepared for college, careers and life. The Administration has threatened to veto the Republican House proposal if it comes to the president’s desk. At its core, ESEA is a civil rights law, meant to ensure all children—regardless of their background, ZIP code, disability, or family’s income—have equal access to a well-rounded, world-class education. The Republican plan for ESEA removes provisions in the law that help states, districts and schools meet that goal.

According to the White House, because of this bill, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), where more than 30 percent of students are below the poverty level, would lose more than $64 million in Title I funding – a 23% cut in federal education dollars. East St. Louis District 189, where 56% of students live in poverty, would lose $2 million in funding (a 26% cut). Similarly, Rockford stands to lose 8%, Decatur faces a reduction of 11%, and Cahokia – where the poverty rate is nearly 50% - would lose 14% of their federal funding.