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What to Expect at the Senate Education Committee Markup of the NCLB Rewrite

By Lauren Camera — April 13, 2015 6 min read
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The Senate education committee is slated to markup the bipartisan rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law Tuesday, during which members of the education committee will offer amendments to try to eliminate language from, or add language to, the bill to alter it more to their liking.

Republicans have the numbers to approve or refute any amendment that’s offered, so maintaining the legislation’s bipartisan nature will be a delicate process that’s sure to test the politicking skills of Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairman and ranking member who negotiated for more than two months to craft the compromised legislation.

The upside of a bipartisan bill like this is that it contains education policies meant to charm both parties. For example, the measure would give states the flexibility to create their own accountability systems, a big priority for Republicans. And to appease Democrats, the bill wouldn’t allow Title I dollars for low-income students to follow them to the school of their choice.

That upside, however, is also the bill’s downside because policies meant to placate Democrats, for example, are the exact policies that vex Republicans (and vice versa). Essentially, in trying to please everyone, the compromise pleases no one entirely.

For those familiar with the legislative process (and politics in general), this is somewhat of a no-brainer. But it’s an important point to keep in mind as the committee begins marking up the bill, especially since this particular committee is home to an incredibly diverse slate of senators, some of whom may not be willing to play nice in order to preserve the bipartisan nature of the measure.

So what should we expect from education committee members in terms of amendments?

For starters, it’s important to note that members on the education committee span the ideological spectrum, from libertarian to Tea Party, from liberal lion to socialist, plus plenty of true-blue moderates.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the newly announced 2016 president candidate, has recently co-sponsored legislation that would bar the federal government from getting involved in standards or assessments. Language to that effect is already included in the Alexander-Murray compromise, but having spent a lot of presidential political capital bashing the standards, there’s a chance he may offer an amendment that would go even further.

Paul has also teamed up with Alexander in the past on legislation that would allow Title I dollars for disadvantaged kids to follow students to any school of their choice, even a private school, so be on the look-out for that.

And fun fact about Paul: In 2011, he filed 74 (of the 144 total) amendments during committee consideration of a bipartisan bill to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act—and put up procedural road blocks aimed at slowing down the bill.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., has been adamant that he’ll try to make the rewrite of the NCLB law “as conservative as possible.” He’s a fervent support of school choice policies, including the expansion of charter schools, Title I portability, and vouchers for private schools. He’s likely to offer amendments on those issues.

Sen. Michael Bennett, D-Colo., who was previously the superintendent of the Denver school system, has been involved in drafting various legislative proposals to strengthen teacher and principal training, so he may offer an amendment along those lines.

Bennet also teamed up with Alexander not too long ago and introduced a bill that would start a national task force to look at federal, state, and local regulations, as well as testing and assessment systems. The group would examine which regulations and assessments schools have to comply with, and to separate meaningless, bureaucratic red-tape from the stuff that actually has an impact on student learning. Be on the lookout for that amendment.

And it’s worth pointing out that, back in 2011, Bennet introduced, and then withdrew, a measure that would seek to put student achievement goals in an NCLB rewrite. The language was essentially pulled from the administration’s NCLB waivers. Bennet offered the change largely at the behest of the civil rights groups, who were unhappy with the fact that the bill wouldn’t set achievement targets for specific groups of students. It’s unclear if a similar “goals” amendment will make an appearance this time around.

Earlier this year, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., teamed up with Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., in the U.S. House of Representatives to introduce a bill that would allow states to spend federal resources to rethink the number and types of tests they require. It would also allow them to use the funds to improve their use of assessment data, such as by providing more time for educators to design instruction based on test results or fast-tracking the delivery of test data to students and families. The measure was offered and adopted to the NCLB rewrite that’s currently stalled in the House. And with testing being one of the major policy debates of the overhaul, chances are good that Baldwin offers the bill as an amendment.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, who caucuses with the Democrats and considers himself a socialist, may make a fuss that the Alexander-Murray compromise eliminates the “highly qualified teacher” definition—something he’s argued it particularly important to ensuring students in rural communities, like much of Vermont, have access to good teachers. Back in 2011, he offered an amendment that would have further tightened the definition, qualifying teachers only if they had completed a state-approved traditional or alternative teacher-preparation program, or passed a rigorous state-approved teacher-performance assessment, and attained certification in their subject matter.

During the three committee hearings earlier this year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., dug into the need to preserve a strong accountability system and said Alexander’s original NCLB draft didn’t do enough to hold states accountable for the billions of taxpayer dollars they received. So be on the look for some sort of amendment that ensures the federal government is getting a bang for its buck.

Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said during one of the hearings that states should be required to spend a portion of their Title I funding for low-income students to pay for social workers, school nurses, and other programs and personnel that can provide wraparound services for students. An amendment on wrap-around services could be in store from her.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has been pushing legislative proposals aimed at protecting LGBT students from bullying. He is a co-sponsor of the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which would create a broad federal prohibition against discrimination in public schools “based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity” of students.

What’s likely to pass and what’s likely to fail?

Senators have until Monday at 10 AM to file their amendments, and with Alexander promising an open markup process, there’s likely to be a considerable number.

It’s difficult at this point to predict which will become part of the bill and which won’t, especially considering we don’t yet know what will be offered. But there’s likely to be a slew of pre-agreed upon amendments that both Alexander and Murray have given their blessing to.

Then there will be the more partisan amendments, like making Title I portable or beefing up the accountability system. And those are the amendments that will force Alexander and Murray to convince their colleagues to basically vote against something they believe in for the sake of keeping the bill bipartisan.

That may prove more difficult for Alexander than Murray since Republicans rule the roost as the majority party. But it’s likely that Alexander will be able to keep in line most of his colleagues, including moderate Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Susan Collins, R-Maine, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., to name a few.

Of course, some amendments will be for show. Others will be offered and then withdrawn by their sponsors, but provide a preview of what will likely be hot areas of debate once if the bill moves to the Senate floor.