Senate Braced for Lengthy Debate on ESEA

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After weeks of letting it languish in the legislative queue, the U.S. Senate this week is slated to begin debating a proposed bipartisan overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the first such Senate debate since 2001, when Congress last updated the law in its current iteration, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Notably, the announcement by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that he would call the bill to the floor July 7 came just one day after 10 major education groups, including the two national teachers' unions and the Council of Chief State School Officers, banded together amid mounting frustrations and demanded the Senate make the reauthorization a priority.

"If senators were students in a classroom, none of us would expect to receive a passing grade for unfinished work," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the education committee and co-author of the bill, in a statement. "Seven years is long enough to consider how to fix No Child Left Behind."

Bipartisan Proposal

The more-than-600-page bipartisan bill to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act being taken up by the U.S. Senate would leave intact major elements of the law’s existing version, the No Child Left Behind Act, but would make changes in other areas. The bill is called the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015.

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 the Common Core State Standards

Among other things, the bipartisan rewrite, which the Senate education committee passed unanimously in April, would eliminate the current accountability system, known as adequate yearly progress, and give states much more flexibility in creating their own. At the same time, the proposal would maintain the annual federal testing schedule and the requirement that states report disaggregated student achievement data.

Amendments Expected

Education advocates said they expect a lengthy debate, likely spanning a week or more. Taking into consideration the looming presidential and congressional election season, lawmakers may want the opportunity to cast a vote on an important public policy issue, especially given that only 28 senators who are still in office today were in office at the time of NCLB vote.

Sen. Alexander and co-author Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., previously promised an open amendment process, and senators have been readying amendments for weeks.

"In the Senate education committee, we had three days of discussion and debate, considered 57 amendments, approved 29—improving the bipartisan agreement Senator Murray and I reached," Sen. Alexander said. "I look forward to that same level of discussion on the Senate floor."

The biggest dispute will likely center on whether—and how—to beef up accountability provisions in the underlying bill, something that civil rights groups and even the White House are calling for.

On June 18, a group of 36 civil rights organizations said in a letter to senators that without additional federal safeguards for disadvantaged students, the bipartisan ESEA measure "will not fulfill its functions as a civil rights law," and they will not support it.

The organizations, which include The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Urban League, the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, Education Trust, and others, called for four specific changes to the bill.

Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president and director of policy at The Leadership Conference, said during a press call that the groups are hoping to revive some amendments that were offered during the committee markup of the bill, including an accountability amendment from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., that would require states to identify schools that don't meet the states' standards two years in a row.

In addition, they'd like added a proposal from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., that would allow states to cross-tabulate graduation-rate data; a proposal from Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, that deals with data reporting on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; and a proposal from Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., about resource equity.

Another likely point of contention is whether to make Title I money for low-income students portable. During the markup, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., offered and withdrew an amendment that would have allowed Title I dollars to follow students to the public or private school of their choice. He plans to offer the measure on the floor, and Sen. Alexander said he would support it.

Title I Showdown

Also on Title I, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., is expected to offer an amendment that would change the formula for how the funding is doled out in an effort to make it more equitable.

The issue of bullying will likely be an additional lightning rod, as senators filed many amendments on the topic during the committee markup. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., offered and then withdrew an amendment based on the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which is aimed at protecting LGBT students from harassment and bullying. Sens. Alexander and Robert Casey, D-Pa., also offered and withdrew bullying amendments. All three will likely offer their amendments again during floor debate.

Related Blog

Finally, the issue of background checks will likely surface, as Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Sen. Alexander have been sparring over how to require states to run checks on all school employees.

Should the ESEA measure clear the Senate, it's still unclear what will happen on the other side of the Capitol. The U.S. House of Representatives has its own reauthorization bill pending that at some point would need to be reconciled with the Senate's bill.

House GOP leaders yanked that bill from the floor after it became clear it didn't have enough support to pass. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., put the bill back on the agenda for the month of June, but it was never called up for a final vote.

"We still have a long way to go before we can send a bill to the president's desk," Sen. Murray said. "But I am committed to working with Democrats and Republicans to build on the progress we've made so far and keep improving and strengthening this bill."

Vol. 34, Issue 36, Page 17

Published in Print: July 8, 2015, as Lengthy Floor Debate Looms for U.S. Senate Over ESEA Rewrite
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