From the Coalition Column of the December 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

A Well-Rounded Education: At What Price?

Lee White, December 2011

On October 20, 2011, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) completed its markup of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The bill includes an amendment, offered by Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA), which would create a "well-rounded" education fund. School districts could use the money to fund history; arts; civics and government; economics; environmental education; financial literacy; foreign languages; geography; health education; physical education; and social studies programs.

The ESEA bill passed 15-7, with the support of all the HELP Committee Democrats and Republican Senators Enzi (WY-ranking member), Alexander (TN) and Kirk (IL.). The Casey amendment was agreed to by voice vote.

The Casey amendment is similar to a proposal included in "Blueprint for Reform," the Obama Administration's plan for reauthorizing the ESEA that was released in 2010. Like the Administration's proposal, the Casey amendment would consolidate a number of existing, content-specific K–12 programs into a single fund, effectively eliminating dedicated funding for subjects like history, civics, and foreign language.


"Well-rounded" education grants would be made from the U.S. Department of Education to an "eligible entity." This is defined as a state educational agency in partnership with a local education agency (LEA), nonprofit organization, institution of higher education, or other state education agency.

The grants would be awarded on a competitive basis and applications would be peer reviewed. The grants would be for no more than five years. Under the amendment, grants will be awarded to states on a competitive basis, as long as funding for the program falls below $500 million. If funding reaches $500 million, a formula distribution requirement would go into effect.

The new "well rounded" education program is targeted at low-income, high-need districts. The application must identify the academic subject areas for which the eligible entity is seeking funds. However, the Department of Education cannot require any grantee to address a specific subject or address all of the covered subjects. This is in keeping with the ideological thrust of the bill, providing maximum flexibility to school districts to spend federal dollars on what they identify as their own priorities such as professional development for teachers and the development and implementation of "high-quality curricula."

Under the new structure, history and other fields would be competing against each other for limited funding. So there would be no guaranteed federal funding stream for history professional development as there was under the Teaching American History (TAH) grants program, which would cease to exist.

Despite this drawback, many advocacy groups for the affected programs, including the National Coalition for History, supported the Casey amendment, in large part due to the fact that the White House has already zeroed out these programs (as separate line-items) in its last two budget proposals to Congress (for fiscal years 2011 and 2012). While this is by no means an ideal solution, given the current emphasis on deficit reduction and drive to push decisions on education spending to the localities, it does ensure that federal funds will still be available for history education and professional development, albeit at a much lower level.

The NCH will continue to advocate for the restoration of the Teaching American History grants program; but with neither Congress nor the White House willing to keep TAH on the table, we also need to exert effective pressure in favor of the Harkin/Enzi bill that is actually in play. NCH and advocates for the other affected subjects are working to improve the Casey amendment by pressing for some set percentage of dedicated funding for each subject within the larger "well-rounded education" fund with the remainder left unfettered for states and localities to use for their own priorities.

There is no comparable comprehensive ESEA reauthorization bill in the House. Instead a number of piecemeal bills addressing specific sections of the ESEA have been introduced. In May, the House Education and Workforce Committee passed H.R. 1891, the "Setting New Priorities in Education Act," which would eliminate 43 programs at the Department of Education including Teaching American History (TAH) grants.

Senator Harkin has stated he would like to have his bill on the Senate floor by Thanksgiving and voted on in December, but few believe that is possible.

While Congress continues to dither over ESEA reform, the Obama administration has seized the opportunity to implement at least part of its own proposed reforms of the ESEA. Many in Congress, in both houses and in both parties, have accused the White House of circumventing Congress's prerogative in reauthorizing the ESEA through a backdoor way of granting waivers to states in complying with the more onerous provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB).

On September 23, 2011, the U.S. Department of Education announced it was granting state educational agencies the opportunity to request flexibility on behalf of itself, its local educational agencies, and its schools. Educators and state and local leaders will be able to request waivers from several specific provisions of NCLB, in exchange for establishing their own rigorous and comprehensive state-developed plans.

For example, a state can request flexibility regarding the 2013–14 timeline for achieving "100 Percent Proficiency" rule as mandated by NCLB. Under the waiver process, a state will no longer have to set targets that require all students to be proficient by 2014. Instead, a state will have flexibility to establish ambitious but achievable goals in reading/language arts and mathematics to support improvement efforts for all schools and all students.

However, until Congress enacts ESEA reform, the Teaching American History Grants (TAH) program still exists in law and can still be funded in fiscal 2012. So despite a grim outlook for the long-term future of the TAH grants program, NCH is still pressing to get the program funded for at least one more year.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a fiscal 2012 Labor, Health and Human Services and Education funding bill (S. 1599) that includes $46 million for the TAH grants program. However a draft House Appropriations Committee version of the bill seeks to entirely eliminate funding for the TAH grants program. The program had received $46 million in fiscal 2011, but that funding went to existing TAH grantees. No new grants could be awarded.

Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at lwhite@historycoalition.org.