Debate on the bipartisan reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, officially known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), will resume Wednesday on the U.S. Senate floor.
Democrats are particularly concerned with a particularly divisive issue — an accountability amendment which is designed to ensure that students with disabilities, students of color, and English language learners who aren’t meeting certain benchmarks get assistance. Specifically, states or school districts would be obligated to intervene in schools where those groups are consistently failing to meet those benchmarks as a condition of federal funding.
It’s an amendment that has divided typically aligned Democratic groups. The National Education Association (NEA) urged senators to vote “no” on the amendment offered by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Chris Coons (D-DE). The teachers union released a statement saying they were “deeply concerned” that the amendment would simply offer more ways for a school to be considered failing, a designation originally defined in the 2001 No Child Left Behind bill, which they have long opposed.
“[i]n the real-world environment of limited resources where states have inadequate capacity already, it risks diminishing states’ ability to make decisions about providing necessary supports to truly low-performing schools in order to help students most in need,” the NEA statement read.
Another important priority for Democrats is a universal pre-k amendment, offered by Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey. Casey asked for unanimous consent to call up the amendment Tuesday morning but Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) opposed it and asked Casey and other sponsors come up with a different way to pay for the amendment. The amendment would close the corporate tax inversions loophole, which would provide around $30 billion in funding.
On Tuesday morning, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats will block a Wednesday vote to end debate if necessary because he wants to have time for Democrats to debate their amendments — a sentiment Murray agreed with.
“We’re going to have to have a reasonable time to debate those amendments and have votes on those amendments. Otherwise we’re not going to complete this bill,” Reid said, according to The Hill. Murray has included pre-k in the three amendments she would like to see debated.
There were a couple wins for Democrats and those who oppose efforts that would make it easier for students to opt out of assessments Tuesday, but there was one major loss for LGBT advocates. Minnesota Sen. Al Franken’s (D) amendment, which would make it easier to discourage bullying of LGBT students in schools, did not pass. Seven Republicans voted for the amendment, however, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Susan Collins (R-ME), Dean Heller (R-NV), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Rob Portman (R-OH), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Four of the Republicans who joined in face contentious elections in 2016.
Franken and other senators used several examples of LGBT students and students who were perceived to be LGBT who died by suicide as teenagers to push for the amendment’s passage. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who is leading the bipartisan ESEA reauthorization with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), urged her fellow senators to vote for the amendment and said in a speech on the Senate floor, “Kids skip class to avoid harassment and some kids drop out of school because they don’t feel safe there. This amendment would offer students the same protections as those students discriminated against on the basis of race and disability. I know some Republicans have argued it will only create lawsuits but I think these students deserve justice.” Her colleagues evidently disagreed and the amendment failed in a 52–45 vote (the amendment needed 60 votes to pass).
Meanwhile, there was a Democratic win on the subject of tracking the academic progress of homeless students and foster students. Booker offered an amendment that would allow homeless and foster children’s graduation rates on state report cards. It passed, though Alexander opposed it would add additional burdens on states.
“It adds two no subgroups for every state. These populations are difficult to track because of the transient nature of those populations,” Alexander said.
Utah Sen. Mike Lee (R) offered an amendment that would allow parents to opt out of standardized tests without putting federal funding at risk in those states, but it was voted down. A similar amendment, sponsored by House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairman Rep. John Kline (R-MN), passed in the House. The Senate’s reauthorization bill would require states to allow for testing 95 percent of students but does not require that all students be tested, so if a state allows for opt-outs, the federal government can’t withhold funding. In that respect, Alexander, who opposed the bill, said Lee’s bill would actually take away local control of states to decide their own opt out legislation and would essentially hand down a Washington mandate.
“The senator from Utah’s proposal is a Washington mandate … That’s like common core. The proposal that’s on the floor tomorrow says Washington may not mandate to any states on what their standards should be,” Alexander said. “I say to my Republican friends, do we agree with local control when we agree with local policy? States have a right to be right and states have a right to be wrong. This amendment takes away the right to decide whether and how to use the federal test and whether parents may opt out.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson’s (R-GA) amendment that would let parents know well in advance of tests what the policies are on opting out of assessments also passed Tuesday.