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Senate Votes to End Debate on ESEA Rewrite; Final Vote Expected Thursday

By Lauren Camera — July 15, 2015 7 min read
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The U.S. Senate cleared a major hurdle Wednesday, voting to end debate on the bipartisan bill to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and paving the way for a final vote on the measure Thursday.

Thanks to an agreement struck between co-authors Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., and their respective party leaders, the bill was able to remain on the floor into Thursday until more than 40 outstanding amendments could be considered to the measure, the Every Child Achieves Act.

Before agreeing to invoke cloture with an overwhelming 86-12 vote, the Senate adopted 21 of those amendments by unanimous consent (see list below). In the afternoon, senators voted on and rejected four additional amendments, including one of the most high-profile amendments the chamber has considered in its six days of debate—a proposal from Democrats to beef up accountability measures in the underlying bill.

In the afternoon, senators voted on and rejected one of the most high-profile amendments the chamber has considered in its six days of debate—a proposal from Democrats to beef up accountability measures in the underlying bill to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the law.

Among other things, the amendment would have required states to establish measurable state-designed goals for all students and separately for each of the categories of subgroups of students. It also would have required states to intervene in their lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and those that graduate less than 67 percent of their students.

“NCLB said a lot on this issue, and most of it wasn’t helpful,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the principal author of the proposal. “But the amendment we’re offering takes a very different approach. This is an education bill, but it’s not a worthwhile bill unless it’s also a civil rights bill.”

As we wrote Tuesday, Democrats weren’t expecting the amendment to pass. But they were hoping to cobble together 35 or more votes to show that strengthening accountability is a top priority going into conference with the House on its version of an ESEA overhaul.

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

But the National Education Association threw a bit of a wrench in their plan when it came out in opposition to the amendment and urged senators to vote against it.

The 3 million-member union argued that the amendment would “continue the narrow and punitive focus of NCLB and overidentify schools in need of improvement, reducing the ability of states to actually target help to schools that need the most assistance to help students.”

In a letter to senators, the NEA wrote that it agreed with the intent of the amendment, in that states should be required to specifically factor subgroup performance into their system of school identification. But that overall system, they letter stated, should be decided by the states, not the federal government.

NEA’s opposition sent civil rights groups into a tizzy, as they had been pushing for months for the increased safeguards included in the amendment. Just hours before the vote, the coalition of civil rights groups warned that if members voted in against the measure, it would count against them in a scoring rubric they use to rate which members are most faithful to their priorities.

The accountability amendment ultimately failed, 43-54, but Democrats secured the numbers they were hoping for. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and John Tester, D-Mont., were the only Democrats to oppose the measure, along with Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.

The Senate also took up an amendment that the NEA had been backing: a proposal from Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., that would have created a so-called 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.

It too failed 46-50.

Here’s a rundown of the amendments the Senate voted on Wednesday. Each of the following proposals needed to cross a 60-vote threshold:

  • An amendment from Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., that would have established a climate change education program. FAILED, 44-53
  • An amendment from Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., that would have reinstated grants to improve the mental health of children. FAILED, 58-39
  • An amendment from Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., that would have ensured states measure and report on indicators of student access to critical educational resources and identify disparities in such resources. FAILED, 46-50
  • An amendment from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., that would have increased accountability by requiring states to identify and intervene in low-performing schools and subgroups that fail to meet state goals. FAILED, 43-54

The Senate will consider the last block of amendments Thursday, including an amendment from Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., that would alter the Title I funding formula for low-income students, and another from Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., that would expand access to early-childhood education programs.

Amid pushback from senators on both sides of the aisle, Burr altered the language in his amendment to ensure that states that would lose money due to the formula change wouldn’t begin losing money until Title I is funded to the tune of $17 billion (an unknown amount of years down the road). The grant program is currently funded at $14.5 billion.

Despite the modification, senators continued to express concern with the proposal, including many of his Republican colleagues.

“While this is a huge improvement, it’s still something I think is very problematic,” said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., whose home state would lose $170 million under the proposal, according to the Congressional Research Service. “I will vote no.”

A final vote on the bill is expected Thursday.

Here are amendments the Senate adopted under unanimous consent:

  • An amendment from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would express the sense of Congress that John Arthur “Jack” Johnson should receive a posthumous pardon for the racially-motivated conviction in 1913 that diminished the athletic, cultural, and historical significance of Jack Johnson and unduly tarnished his reputation.
  • An amendment from Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., that would provide for shared services strategies and models.
  • An amendment from Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., that would allow states to use state activity funds for certain evidence-based mental health awareness programs.
  • An amendment from Sen. Tom Udall that would allow the Bureau of Indian Education to apply for certain competitive grants.
  • An amendment from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would allow eligible entities to use funds for bilingual paraprofessionals and linguistically responsive materials.
  • An amendment from Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., that would improve preparation programs and strengthen support for principals and other school leaders.
  • An amendment from Sen. King that would authorize the Institute of Education Sciences to conduct a study on student access to digital learning resources outside of the school day.
  • An amendment from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., that would require a report on responses to Indian student suicides.
  • An amendment from Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., that would reserve funds for an evaluation of early learning alignment and improvement grants.
  • An amendment from Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., that would ensure that states support early-childhood education programs that maintain disciplinary policies that do not include expulsion or suspension of participating children.
  • An amendment from Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., that would encourage increasing the amount of funds available for parent and family engagement.
  • An amendment from Sen. McCain that would allow states to use funding to replicate and expand successful practices from high-performing public schools.
  • An amendment from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., that would support innovation schools.
  • An amendment from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that would allow local school districts to address the needs of children in schools served by schoolwide programs by providing school-based mental health programs.
  • An amendment from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would require a report on cybersecurity education.
  • An amendment from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that would include entrepreneurship as a local educational agency allowable use of funds under Title II.
  • An amendment from Sen. Alexander that would provide that state assessments not evaluate or assess personal or family beliefs and attitudes, or publicly disclose personally identifiable information.
  • An amendment from Sen. Bennet that would include information about assessments in the categories of information that parents have a right to know about.
  • An amendment from Sen. Booker that would assess and improve educator support and working conditions.
  • An amendment from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas that would reauthorize the Education Flexibility Partnership Act of 1999.