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Senate ESEA Debate: What to Expect This Week

By Lauren Camera — July 12, 2015 4 min read
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When the U.S. Senate convenes late Monday to continue considering its overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it will begin with a pair of largely pre-agreed upon amendments but quickly move to more contentious debates at the heart of the reauthorization—proposals to increase accountability, give students and parents more school choice options, and prevent bullying, among others.

Meanwhile, pressure mounts on the bill’s co-authors, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., to get the measure across the finish line as competing congressional priorities continue to pile up, including spending bills, a highway funding bill, a forthcoming response to the Iran nuclear framework, and more.

And the U.S. House of Representatives approved its Republican-backed version of an ESEA rewrite last week (read more about that here), clearing a major hurdle to getting a bill to the president’s desk.

On Monday at 5:30 p.m., the Senate is scheduled to consider two amendments to its ESEA bill, the Every Child Achieves Act. One, from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would establish a committee on student data privacy policies. Another, from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., would amend state accountability systems regarding the measures used to ensure that students are ready to enter postsecondary education.

Both proposals are expected to pass.

[UPDATE 6:30 p.m.: The Senate passed Hatch’s amendment with a unanimous vote of 89-0, and passed Kaine’s amendment via voice vote.]

Throughout the rest of the week, the Senate is expected to continue debate on a variety of more divisive amendments, beginning with these three:

  • An amendment from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., that would enact the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which would create a comprehensive federal prohibition against discrimination and bullying in public schools based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • An amendment from Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., that would allow Title I funding for low-income students to follow them to the public school of their choice.
  • An amendment from Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., that would ensure states measure and report on indicators of student access to critical educational resources and identify disparities in such resources.

The amendment from Franken would be the first of potentially three different amendments that would address the issue of bullying, including providing protections for students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). Alexander and Casey are also planning to offer similar amendments.

Notably, the forthcoming bullying debate will prompt the first votes on LGBT issues since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. You can read more about the dueling bullying amendments here.

Scott’s amendment marks Republicans’ second effort to add a Title I portability provision to the underlying bill. Last week, senators rebuffed a proposal from Alexander that would have provided low-income students with a $2,100 voucher to use at the public or private school of their choice.

The National Education Association has been looking forward to the amendment from Kirk, which would implement its vision of an “opportunity dashboard"—a tool that would display inequities in funding, access to experienced teachers, and advanced classes, and require states and districts to help fix them.

The Senate will also likely consider an amendment from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., that would beef up accountability in the underlying bill by allowing states to cross-tabulate student achievement data. That proposal was supposed to get a vote last week, but Alexander and Murray pulled it from the floor in order to finesse language. You can read more about that here.

In addition, the Senate will likely consider an amendment from Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., that would alter the funding formula for the Title I grant for low-income students. That proposal has already sparked some hot debate on the floor, as its impact would siphon a significant amount of funding away from some states. For example, New York would lose more than $300 million and Pennsylvania would lose nearly $130 million, according to the Congressional Research Service.

You can read more about the proposal here.

As the week progresses, keep an eye out for additional amendments from Democrats that would amp up accountability for disadvantaged students, including proposals that focus on identifying poorly performing schools. And Republicans are likely to offer a few more amendments aimed at increasing choice, including one from Scott that would allow students with disabilities to use funding from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to attend the school of their choice.

Nearly 150 amendments have been filed so far, though it’s unclear just how many will actually make it to the floor. Alexander and Murray are hoping to wrap up the debate this week, but it could spill over to next week depending on other congressional priorities.