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Senate Ed. Committee Spars Over Bullying Prevention in ESEA Rewrite; Nears Finish

By Lauren Camera — April 15, 2015 5 min read
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The Senate education committee adjourned Day Two of its markup of a bipartisan overhaul Elementary and Secondary Education Act overhaul Wednesday, having nearly completed the task of considering the 87 amendments that members filed to the legislative compromise.

What had been a relatively calm legislative process since the markup began Tuesday produced a more passionate debate Wednesday afternoon when members considered a pair of dueling amendments on harassment and bullying, particularly of LGBT students.

An amendment from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the committee and co-author of the underlying bill, would allow states and school districts to use federal funds to implement or improve bullying-prevention policies.

“It does not tell local school districts exactly what to do,” said Alexander, who has been hyper-vigilant in opposing anything in the way of an amendment that would give lawmakers on Capitol Hill or the U.S. Secretary of Education control over state or local decisions.

“It does not say, ‘This is our definition from Washington of bullying, and this is our definition of what you must do about it,’” he said.

An amendment from Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., meanwhile, would require states that receive federal funding to establish bullying-prevention policies.

“This problem is much more severe than it was 15 years ago,” Casey said. “It’s a national epidemic. Students are committing suicide. The current system isn’t working, and I don’t believe it should be optional for school districts to deal with it.”

Essentially, Alexander’s amendment would let states protect students from bullying while Casey’s would require states to protect students from bullying. The two amendments elicited the most lengthy and heated debate thus far in the markup.

“I think you’re both right,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “I want something that truly has teeth, and I think what Casey has done would help better define [the problem] .... But I agree with Alexander that I don’t want D.C. telling a village in remote Alaska what that definition of bullying is.”

“I think it’s important that we acknowledge that so much of the bullying atmosphere coming at kids today is directed at kids with LGBT status,” Murkowski continued. “But it’s too general in one approach and too prescriptive in another.”

At one point in the back and forth, Alexander said he would withdraw his amendment if Casey would do the same, and suggested the two of them try to find a legislative compromise.

Casey originally demurred, saying he wanted a vote on his amendment (and already having the support of Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., his amendment likely would have been adopted). But upon additional nudging from Murkowski, he agreed to work with Alexander to try to reach middle ground between the two bullying amendments. They both withdrew their amendments.

In addition to punting on the bullying amendments, the committee adopted via voice vote a package of eight amendments, including one that would reinstate the 21st Century Community Learning Center program and another that would require the secretary of education to engage in outreach to rural school districts regarding opportunity to apply for competitive grants.

The committee also approved an early-education amendment, offered by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member of the committee, and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., which would allow states and local school districts to better coordinate their federal, state, and local pre-K programs. Members also approved five other amendments. (See list below)

The committee will reconvene at 2:30 p.m. Thursday for what will likely be a short debate and vote on the final three amendments. The last gasp of the markup will take place just after U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testifies before the Senate Budget Committee to defend the president’s fiscal 2016 budget request.

In case you’ve missed any of the markup so far, you can read about all 87 amendments filed here, about the amendments that were debated and voted on Tuesday here, and the amendments that were debate and voted on earlier Wednesday here.

And here’s a list of the amendments offered this afternoon and the results:

  • A package of eight amendments that includes the following PASSED via voice vote:

      • An amendment from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that would reinstate 21st Century Community Learning Centers in the bill.
      • An amendment from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., based on Project SERV, that would provide education-related services to school districts and institutes of higher education dealing with a violent or traumatic crisis.
      • An amendment from Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., that would increase financial literacy and federal financial-aid awareness.
      • An amendment from Bennet that would provide grants to states and schools to develop, implement, replicate, or scale up rigorous testing of entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students.
      • An amendment from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., that would establish a literacy and arts program in Title V that deals with charter schools.
      • An amendment from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., that would establish a grant program to support schools that use Native American and Alaskan Native languages as the primary language of instruction.
      • An amendment from Bennet that would require the secretary of education to engage in outreach to rural school districts regarding opportunity to apply for competitive grants.

Other amendments considered by the committee and their results:

  • An amendment from Franken that would increase the number of school counselors and social workers. PASSED
  • An amendment from Bennet that would create a pilot program to allow 25 school districts to develop and use weighted student funding system. PASSED
  • An amendment from Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., that would increase well-rounded education by ensuring access to classes like art, economics, civics, foreign languages, etc. FAILED
  • An amendment from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., on bullying. WITHDRAWN
  • An amendment from Casey on bullying. WITHDRAWN
  • An amendment from Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., that would have ensured supports in literacy programs for students with dyslexia. FAILED
  • An amendment from Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that would allow states and school districts to use technology to improve college- and career-ready skills of teachers and school leaders, and increase the effectiveness of entire education system. PASSED
  • An amendment from Murray that would allow states and school districts to better align and coordinate their early-education programs. PASSED
  • An amendment from Whitehouse that would create a grant program to allow states and school districts to scale up and replicate innovation schools. WITHDRAWN