Fresh Battles Loom When Full Senate Takes Up ESEA Rewrite

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., center, chairman of the Senate education committee, talks with staff members as the committee prepares to mark up a proposed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., center, chairman of the Senate education committee, talks with staff members as the committee prepares to mark up a proposed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
—T.J. Kirkpatrick for Education Week

Senate education panel's unanimous vote just one step toward law's rewrite

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The bipartisan rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that the U.S. Senate education committee unanimously approved this week joins a crush of legislative priorities awaiting debate on the chamber's floor—a process that's not guaranteed, and one that will likely draw intense partisan sparring.

Even if the bill breaks through an already-clogged congressional calendar and moves to debate, it could look radically different as senators on both sides of the aisle offer amendments to reshape the measure to their liking.

The compromise bill—negotiated for more than two months by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairman and ranking member of the committee—would maintain some major policies included in the current version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act. Among them: the law's annual testing schedule, and the requirements that states report disaggregated data for subgroups of students, including minorities, low-income students, English-learners, and those with disabilities.

But the Senate measure—the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015—significantly diverges in other ways from the NCLB legislation signed into law in 2002. Notably, it would scrap the federal accountability yardstick known as adequate yearly progress, and instead would allow states to create their own accountability systems.

"This continues the law's important measurement of academic progress, but restores to states, school districts, teachers, and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about student achievement," Sen. Alexander said.

He added that the 22-0 vote was "remarkable" for a committee of lawmakers that's ideologically diverse.

Senate Momentum

The last time the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee cleared a reauthorization of the ESEA was in 2011. Efforts in the U.S. House of Representatives to overhaul the law are stalled after its version of a rewrite passed the House Education and the Workforce Committee in February.

Over the course of this week's debate in the Senate committee, members filed 87 amendments and debated and considered 57 of them. Sens. Alexander and Murray pleaded with their colleagues to help them wade through the amendments in a way that protected their carefully crafted compromise.

Moving Ahead

The more-than 600-page compromise measure to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act approved by the Senate education committee this week leaves intact major elements of the law’s existing version, the No Child Left Behind Act, but would make changes in others areas. The bill, called the “Every Child Achieves Act of 2015,” now heads to the Senate floor.

5 Takeaways

  1. Would maintain the annual federal testing requirement
  2. Would allow states to create their own accountability systems
  3. Would maintain the requirement that states report disaggregated data to highlight achievements of subgroups of students
  4. Would not allow Title I dollars for low-income students to follow students to the public or private school of their choice
  5. Would maintain the requirement that states adopt challenging academic standards, but add the clarification that the federal government may not mandate or provide incentives for states to adopt any particular set of standards, including Common Core State Standards

Major Amendments

The bipartisan ESEA rewrite, was amended over three days this week in several key areas:

Early Education: An amendment offered by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., would allow states and local school districts to better coordinate their federal, state, and local early-childhood education programs.

Testing: An amendment from Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., would allow states to audit the tests they use and to eliminate any deemed ineffective, redundant, or of low-quality.

After-School Programs: An amendment from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would reinstate 21st Century Community Learning Centers in the bill.

Rural Schools: An amendment from Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., would require the secretary of education to engage in outreach to rural school districts regarding opportunity to apply for competitive grants.

Wrap-Around Services: An amendment from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., would increase the number of school counselors and social workers.

Opt-Out: An amendment from Sen. Johnny Iskason, R-Ga., would clarify that nothing in the federal law can pre-empt state or local law regarding parents wishing to opt their student out from tests.

STEM: An amendment from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., would improve access to high-quality stem courses, and help train and recruit teachers for stem subjects.

Sources: U.S. Senate Health, Education Labor, and Pensions Committee; Education Week

"Senator Murray and I have exercised restraint," Sen. Alexander said in his opening remarks April 14. "Neither of us insisted on putting into our base bill every proposal about which we feel strongly, although we will offer some of these as amendments when we reach the Senate floor."

As a result, a majority of the amendments were either adopted by a voice vote with little controversy or withdrawn out of respect for maintaining the bipartisan nature of the legislation.

The highest-profile amendment that was adopted, offered by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., would allow states to audit tests they use and to eliminate any deemed ineffective, redundant, or of low quality. The offer was similarly added to the ESEA revision that's stalled in the House.

In addition, the committee adopted an amendment from Sens. Murray and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., that would allow states and school districts to better coordinate their federal, state, and local early-childhood-education programs.

In total, the Senate committee approved more than 20 amendments that touched on a variety of policy areas, including rural schools; science, technology, engineering, and math, or stem, education; wraparound services; teacher preparation; data collection; and protection of parents' rights to opt their children out of taking tests.

Only two amendments proved challenging—one on bullying, and another that would tweak the funding formula in Title II, which covers matters such as teacher preparation.

Stakeholder Reaction

In response to the vote, civil rights groups applauded the bipartisan process, but voiced concerns about a lack of protections for the most disadvantaged students.

Nancy Zirkin, the executive vice president and director of policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an umbrella group of more than 200 organizations, criticized the bill in a statement for generally rolling back accountability, not requiring enough data reporting, not ensuring the equitable distribution of educational resources, and weakening the education secretary's authority.

"If this bill is not fixed on the Senate floor, we could be forced to oppose it," Ms. Zirkin said.

Civil rights groups got some back-up from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

"Every family and every community deserve to know that schools are helping all children succeed—including low-income students, racial and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, and students learning English," said Mr. Duncan in a statement. "And they deserve to know that if students in those groups fall behind, their schools will take steps to improve, with the strongest action in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools."

The two national teachers' unions continued to sing different tunes in reacting to the bill, with the American Federation of Teachers more eager to embrace it than the National Education Association.

"While not perfect—no compromise is—it restores the law's original intent to address poverty and educational inequality with targeted funding for poor children," said AFT President Randi Weingarten. "It moves away from the counterproductive focus on sanctions and high-stakes tests, and ends federalized teacher evaluations and school closings."

The NEA took a more cautious tack, with President Lily Eskelsen Garciá saying in a statement that she would "continue to call on senators to go even further in helping each and every student, particularly those in poverty and with the greatest educational needs."

Headed Forward

If the bill gets called to the Senate floor, senators will offer many of the contentious amendments that they filed during the committee markup, but either never offered or offered and then withdrew.

Chief among those will be proposals from Republicans to allow Title I dollars for low-income students to follow students to the public or private schools of their choice, and proposals from Democrats to strengthen the accountability system by requiring states to identify their poorest-performing schools.

Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., for example, filed a slew of amendments (some that overlapped) that would have allowed Title I money to follow students, and they plan to offer and debate them if the bill moves to the floor.

On the other hand, Democrats, including Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, urged the addition of more protections for the most disadvantaged students, particularly when identifying the poorest-performing schools and ensuring that the billions of federal education dollars sent to states are being spent effectively on those that need the most support.

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Another major policy that would likely headline a floor debate is how to address bullying, particularly in regard to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, students. Committee members offered and withdrew three separate bullying amendments, including one from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., that would have proposed adding the Student Non-Discrimination Act to the underlying bill.

But getting the bill to the floor may be a challenge in and of itself.

The current legislative backlog includes an anti-human-trafficking bill, the nomination of Loretta Lynch to be the U.S. attorney general, a congressional response to the Iran nuclear-deal framework, and a looming vote on a fiscal 2016 budget.

And while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has mentioned education as something the chamber might address in this legislative work period, which ends May 22, the ESEA reauthorization has yet to be specifically scheduled for floor time.

Vol. 34, Issue 28, Pages 15, 20

Published in Print: April 22, 2015, as Committee Approval of ESEA Bill Tees Up Fresh Policy Battles
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