The U.S. Senate waded into its first contentious debate since it began considering an overhaul to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, voting on and ultimately rejecting a voucher amendment that would have allowed Title I dollars for low-income students to follow them to the public or private school of their choice.
The amendment, offered Wednesday by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., co-author of the bipartisan bill, would have provided low-income students with a $2,100 scholarship to use at their discretion.
“Equal opportunity in America should mean that everyone should have the same starting line,” said Alexander. “There would be no better way to help move students from the back of the line to the front.”
But Democrats slammed the proposal, arguing it would move scarce federal dollars away from the schools that need them the most.
“Vouchers undermine the basic goals of public education by allowing funding that is designated for our most at-risk students to be re-routed to private schools,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., co-author of the underlying ESEA bill.
“Vouchers only provide the illusion of choice to students from low-income backgrounds,” Murray added. “And it is these low-income students who ultimately lose out when funds are siphoned away from the public schools they attend.”
The measure was expected to be defeated—and it was, by a vote of 45-52—but it is still considered a big win for Democrats who have officially cleared their first school choice policy hurdle, though they will likely face similar amendments in the coming days and weeks.
Indeed, Alexander noted on the floor that Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., plans to offer a similar amendment that would allow students with disabilities to use funding from the Individual with Disabilities Education Act at the school of their choice.
The second day of the Senate’s K-12 reauthorization debate wasn’t much more combative than the first, as members on both sides of the aisle continued to applaud Alexander and Murray’s ability to strike the right balance between the federal and state role in education.
“There was a real overreach in No Child Left Behind,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., of the law’s current version. “As a former school superintendent, I used to wonder all the time why Washington was so mean to our teachers and kids. What I’ve realized while being here is that not everyone is mean, but that this place is the farthest place in the universe from a classroom anywhere in this country.”
That being said, members continued to dig in their heels on hot-button issues, including accountability, background checks for school employees, the comparability loophole, and altering the Title I formula.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., took particular exception to a forthcoming amendment from Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., that would alter the funding formula for Title I, largely because it would reduce his home state of Illinois’ share of Title I money by $180 million per year.
“That’s a 21 percent reduction to help poor and low-income students,” Durbin said. “Chicago Public Schools alone would lose $68 million. I don’t know what procedural tools are available to us, but I will use every tool in the box to stop this.”
Meanwhile, across the Capitol, the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of an ESEA rewrite, a big step in the overall ESEA reauthorization process.
The development increases the pressure on the Senate to get to the finish line with its bill in order to begin what will likely be a lengthy reconciliation process.
“We know in the end that if we want to get a result we’ll need a presidential signature,” Alexander said, adding that he and Murray have been in constant contact with the White House. “We’re not here to play games. We’re here to get a result.”
The Senate plans to reconvene Thursday with a series of votes in the morning and continued debate throughout the day.
Here’s a wrap-up of the Wednesday’s amendments:
At noon, the Senate voted on a slate of three amendments, two of which passed easily via voice vote and another that passed unanimously:
- Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., offered an amendment that would strengthen the role of school librarians and effective school library programs. (PASSED 98-0)
- Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, offered an amendment that would allow districts to use Title IX funds to pay for fiscal support teams to better allocate limited administrative resources. (PASSED VIA VOICE VOTE)
- Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., offered an amendment that would require the Secretary of Education and the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a study regarding elementary and secondary education in rural and poverty areas of Indian country. (PASSED VIA VOICE VOTE)
Another series of votes took place later in the afternoon, during which senators approved three of five amendments:
- Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii offered an amendment that would have required districts with more than 1,000 Asian American/Island Pacific students to report their subgroup achievement data. (FAILED 47-50)
- Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., offered an amendment that would restore four programs eliminated in the underlying bill that are aimed at improving education for Native American students. (PASSED 56-42)
- Sen. Alexander offered an amendment that would have consolidated 89 programs in order to offer low-income students a $2,100 scholarship to use at the public or private school of their choice. (FAILED 45-52)
- Sen. Murray offered an amendment that would require schools to report spending differences on girls’ and boys’ sports, as well as report on the number of coaches and personnel for girls’ and boys’ athletic teams. (PASSED VIA VOICE VOTE)
- Sen. Bennet offered an amendment that would direct the comptroller to conduct an effectiveness study of all programs under ESEA. (PASSED VIA VOICE VOTE)