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Senate Rejects Amendments on Portability, Opt-Outs, LGBT Protections

By Lauren Camera — July 14, 2015 5 min read
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The U.S. Senate continued its work Tuesday on a bill to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, working swiftly under a deadline imposed by the Majority Leader that requires debate to come to a close Wednesday morning.

In total, senators voted on eight amendments, approving five and rejecting three, including one that would have allowed Title I dollars for low-income children to follow them to the school of their choice, and another that would have provided protections under the federal civil rights laws for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.

Notably, Democrats also unveiled their long-awaited amendment that would increase accountability in the underlying bill. The amendment would, among other things, require states to identify and intervene in their poorest-performing 5 percent of schools and those that graduate less than 67 percent of students for two consecutive years.

In trying to appeal to Republican sensibilities, what those interventions are would be left entirely to the states to decide. You can read more about the amendment here.

But Democrats are less concerned with whether the amendment is adopted when it comes to the floor for a vote Wednesday and more concerned with getting the support of 35 or more Democrats in order to make it clear that strengthening accountability is a top priority going into conference with the ESEA rewrite that passed through the U.S House of Representatives last week.

That number 35 is important, they pointed out, because along with the dozen or so Republicans they anticipate voting against the bill no matter what, Democrats would be able to block final passage of a conferenced bill should it not include stronger accountability language.

The Title I portability amendment offered by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., was the second of its kind to fail. Last week senators rejected an amendment from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a co-author of the ESEA bill, that would have used Title I dollars to give low-income students a $2,100 voucher.

“Providing more education options is the right path forward for us to make sure every child everywhere experiences their full potential,” Scott said. “Giving states the ability to provide portability for Title I dollars ... is the kind of reform our kids deserve, it’s the kind of reform our kids need.”

Despite being backed by Alexander, the amendment needed to cross a 60-vote threshold to be adopted, and in the end, failed 45-51.

Another big amendment vote Tuesday was on a proposal offered by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., that would have enacted the Student Nondiscrimination Act to provide LGBT students protections under federal civil rights law.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a co-author of the ESEA rewrite bill, pushed back against senators who argued that the Franken amendment would create a litany of lawsuits and who argued that the federal government shouldn’t define who’s covered in an anti-discrimination amendment.

“There is a reason the civil rights laws of our country clearly define who is protected from discrimination,” said Murray before the vote. “For example, our civil rights laws make clear that it’s unlawful to discriminate based on race and gender. A generic anti-discrimination policy won’t cut it.”

“Surely we can agree that a minority group of students who have long endured bullying, harassment, and discrimination deserve the same protections as other groups of students,” she continued. “The country will be watching.”

But Alexander urged his caucus to oppose the proposal.

“There’s no doubt that bullying and harassment of children ... is a terrible problem,” said Alexander. “But the question is, is this an argument that’s best addressed by local school boards, or state schools boards, or a national school board from Washington? No set of issues is more difficult to deal with on an individual basis ... than a case of harassment or bullying.”

You can read more about the amendment here. Even though it garnered a majority of Senate’s support, 52-45, the amendment ultimately failed because it needed to clear a 60-vote threshold.

Senators also voted on and overwhelmingly rejected an amendment that would have protected students’ right to opt out of federally mandated state tests, and would have eliminated the requirement that schools must test at least 95 percent of their students.

Here’s a recap of the amendments voted on Tuesday:

  • An amendment from Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., that would have allowed Title I dollars for low-income students to follow them to the school of their choice FAILED, 45-51. It needed to clear a 60-vote threshold.
  • An amendment from Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., that would require states to include graduation rates of homeless students on state report cards PASSED, 56-40. It needed only a simple majority.
  • An amendment from Sen. Rob Portman, D-Ohio, that would provide for early college high school and dual or concurrent enrollment opportunities PASSED via voice vote.
  • An amendment from Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., regarding family engagement in education programs PASSED via voice vote.
  • An amendment from Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., that would require districts to inform parents of mandated tests PASSED, 97-0.
  • An amendment from Sen. Bennet that would require states to establish a limit on the aggregate amount of time spent on assessments PASSED via voice vote.
  • An amendment from Sen. Mike Lee, R- Utah, related to parental notification and opt-out of assessments FAILED, 32-64.
  • An amendment from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., that would have enacted the Student Nondiscrimination Act to provide federal civil rights protections for LGBT students FAILED, 52-45. It needed to clear a 60-vote threshold.

When the Senate reconvenes Wednesday, it is likely to complete its consideration of the ESEA rewrite, unless Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., allows Alexander and Murray additional time.

Senators will be voting on the most contentious amendments yet, including the accountability amendment from Democrats, and a proposal from Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., that would alter the funding formula for Title I.