A Deal On A Major Bipartisan Education Bill Includes A Few Victories For Democrats

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., jokes during a news conference. CREDIT: JACQUELYN MARTIN, AP
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., jokes during a news conference. CREDIT: JACQUELYN MARTIN, AP

The House and Senate reached a deal on major bipartisan education legislation Thursday, with Democrats coming away from the table with more than they had in July.

When the bill, a rewrite of the controversial 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation, first passed the Senate in July, it was clear that the federal government’s role in education would be much smaller. Although the states have much more freedom to decide their own accountability standards, the bill does not include some of the priorities Republicans fought for in July and offers more Democratic wins than expected.

How the bipartisan bill will look different from July

An amendment, offered by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), would offer a new pre-K program, which would create a competitive grant program that supports states that are working on initiatives to improve quality and access for pre-K education. The framework also included funding for after-school programs. But perhaps what’s more significant is where Democrats, who are in the minority in both the House and the Senate, were able to stop Republican-driven measures.

  • Many Republicans hoped for stronger measures to allow students to opt-out of standardized tests, but Democrats pushed to weaken that language.
  • Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI) offered an amendment that would place a limit on spending before the legislation is sent to the appropriations committee, but it did not pass. Murray said such legislation would be a step back from the bipartisan progress made on the bill.
  • Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) also lost an amendment that passed in July which would have upended the current Title I formula, which he still advocated for at the conference committee hearing Thursday. Instead of using four formulas, there would be one formula, which wouldn’t use state average per-pupil expenditures and instead use national per-pupil expenditures.
  • The idea behind the amendment is that poor rural states with smaller populations are given short shrift in the current formula, and that a retooling of the formula would make funding more equitable. Senators from states that would lose money, such as Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) strongly opposed the amendment. Instead, the conference voted on an amendment that would allow the Institute of Education Sciences to study the effect a new funding formula would have on states.
  • “You study things you don’t know the answer to,” Burr said. “We know that Title I money is captured in communities that no longer have the population and the Senate came up with a bipartisan approach … I couldn’t leave this institution without knowing we had broader equity for all kids in this country. I’m not sure we will be given another opportunity. Let’s not wait for a study.”
  • “His amendment would have a huge adverse impact on Pennsylvania … Not a single district in our state would gain money,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) countered.

What Democrats lost

  • An amendment extending the Perkins loan program for a year, since the program recently expired, offered by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI);
  • an amendment offered by Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA) sought to create a federal “clearinghouse” that collects information from school districts across the country on best practices for teacher and administrator evaluations;
  • an accountability amendment sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), that was designed to ensure that students with disabilities, students of color, and English language learners who aren’t meeting certain benchmarks get assistance;
  • an universal pre-k amendment sponsored by Casey;
  • and an amendment sponsored by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) that would have made it easier to discourage bullying against LGBT students.

How the bill gives more power back to the states