Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-Beaverton) represents Oregon's 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.Parents across Oregon are adjusting as summer ends and their children return to school. Oregon’s teachers and school administrators spent much of the summer preparing and are ready for the school year ahead; students are getting back to learning, structure and friends. As a member of Congress concerned about how policy drives decisions in education, I’ve decided to go back to school too.

Last week I launched a “Congresswoman in the Classroom” initiative to get a better understanding of the successes and needs of Oregon’s public schools. These visits with teachers, administrators, students and parents across Oregon’s 1st Congressional District will help me understand how policy set in Washington affects what goes on in our classrooms.

The good news is that there are many positive things happening in our public schools in Oregon. Even so, we’ve all heard troubling reports of budget cuts, increasing classroom sizes, teaching to the test and reduced access to subjects like art, civics, career and technical education and second languages.

At the federal level, funding for public schools through No Child Left Behind has been reduced by about 20 percent since 2001. The budget cuts known as sequestration brought additional reductions to programs like Head Start, Title I funding for low-income schools and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The stage is set for another tough budget battle this fall, and unless we stand together, additional cuts could take effect next year.

At the same time, schools are facing an increasing number of mandates that must be met in order to obtain federal funding. Here’s just one example: to qualify for Title I funding, which goes to schools that serve low-income students, states have to give annual standards-based assessments in reading and math to students in the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades and then again between grades 10 and 12. On top of that, students must also be tested in science in elementary, middle and high school.

Many parents and teachers are passionate about their opposition to high-stakes testing, and that’s understandable. Although meaningful, constructive assessment that helps to improve instruction is a good thing, the increasing use of testing with high-stakes consequences is not. I’m working to reform the No Child Left Behind law so that teachers can spend more time focused on the needs of their students and less time accommodating burdensome rules set in Washington, D.C.

I’m also working to restore the principles of a well-rounded education. Many have rightly emphasized the need to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to maintain America’s competitive edge. But in so doing, we must not lose sight of the emphasis on creativity and innovative thinking that have been crucial to America’s economic and entrepreneurial success.

In the 21st century, the ability to innovate and create will be even more central to our ability to compete. That’s why earlier this year I founded the STEAM Caucus, which promotes the integration of the arts and design with traditional STEM subjects. It’s easy to see how the arts and design can improve STEM learning and our future workforce, and the science is there to back it up. According to Bobby Heagerty at the OHSU Brain Institute, “the arts are an essential part of developing a child’s frontal cortex — the part of the brain that governs attention, learning, memory, judgment, impulse control, self-reflection and planning.”

Despite current challenges, our schools continue to do an outstanding job. Every day there are successes and accomplishments in every single school across our state, and many of Oregon’s students are excelling on the national stage.

Teachers, administrators and other school employees put in tremendous hours and achieve amazing results despite continually being asked to do more with less. As I visit public schools throughout the 1st Congressional District this year, I plan to take their stories back to our nation’s capitol. I also hope to hear from parents and other community members who are interested in improving public education.

Every member of our community has a stake in the next generation. By working together and thinking creatively, we can ensure the success of current and future students.

Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-Beaverton) represents Oregon’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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