What Democrats Lost In Bipartisan No Child Left Behind Rewrite, And What They Won

Patty Murray, Charles Schumer, and Harry Reid. CREDIT: CAROLYN KASTER, AP
Patty Murray, Charles Schumer, and Harry Reid. CREDIT: CAROLYN KASTER, AP

The Every Child Achieves Act, the Senate’s bipartisan fix to No Child Left Behind, passed Thursday with 81 voting for and 17 against. Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) voted against the reauthorization. The rest were Republicans including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) Steve Daines (R-MT), Mike Lee (R-UT), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Tim Scott (R-SC) and Jerry Moran (R-KS).

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) led the bipartisan effort. The overwhelming majority that voted in favor of the bill was unusual compared to the usual partisan gridlock, but as with most bipartisan legislation, no one is 100 percent pleased with the legislation. Democrats may have lost more than Republicans, as several of the key amendments pushed by Murray and Democratic leadership did not pass.

Although every senator and advocacy group has a different opinion on what qualified as a win, there were a few amendments that signified Democratic priorities, such as bullying of LGBT students, keeping track of disadvantaged students’ progress and teaching students about climate change.

What Democrats Lost

Accountability Amendment

One of the losses Democrats are sorest over is their accountability amendment, which the Obama administration hoped would be included in the final legislation. The National Education Association opposed the legislation, as it stated the accountability measures were too close to No Child Left Behind and would punish schools rather than offer support. Alexander read the NEA’s statement on the Senate floor Wednesday in support of a no vote.


Booker, who offered the amendment along with Warren and Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), said, “I cannot in good conscience support a bill that falls short of investing in the potential and promise of all of our children, especially New Jersey’s most vulnerable students.”

The amendment that would have required to states to intervene in schools where subgroups of students, such as students of color, low-income students and English-language learners, had achievement gaps.

Several civil rights groups, urged a no vote on the legislation after the amendment failed to pass, such as The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.

“In years past, ignoring these students or segregating them was a moral stain on our nation and that remains true. But today, it is also a recipe for economic disaster. We have been hopeful that there was a path forward toward redeeming the ESEA so that it could live up to its legacy as a civil rights law intended to equal the playing field for vulnerable students but that hope did not materialize yesterday when the senate voted down accountability,” said Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in a conference call before the legislation’s passage.

Universal Pre-K Amendment

The universal pre-K amendment offered by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) also did not pass. It was one of the last few opportunities Democrats had to include one of their top amendments in the legislation. Alexander had previously voiced his concern about how the amendment would be paid for. The amendment required $30 billion to be distributed through block grant funding, which would go to 4-year-olds from low-income families, or families who earn $48,000 for a family of four. States that provide high-quality universal pre-K to 4-year-olds already could extend their programs to 3-year-olds. States receiving that funding would provide subgrants to school districts, licensed child care settings and Head Start programs that must live up to certain quality standards. It would have been paid for through closing a corporate inversions loophole.


“States already spend money through Title I on early education. This proposal is like a familiar ring. It’s like a national school board … It’s a national school board for 4 year olds, it’s common core for Kindergarteners,” Alexander said in opposition to the amendment.

Even though the universal pre-K amendment didn’t make it through, there was some expansion of pre-K included in the legislation.

Climate Change In Textbooks Amendment

It was not a major focus for Democrats, but it would have been a small win had an amendment offered by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) providing for a competitive grant program to support the development of materials that would teach the scientific evidence of climate change, passed. Alexander argued that this was a bad idea because textbooks would have to change every few years, depending on whether Donald Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) became president.

LGBT Bullying Amendment

Murray and several other Democratic senators spent time arguing for the passage of Sen. Al Franken’s (D-MN) amendment, which would make it easier to discourage bullying of LGBT students in schools, but it did not pass. Alexander argued that it would cause more litigation in schools.

What Democrats Won

Keeping ‘Portability’ Out Of The Bill

Democrats fought to keep the portability amendment as well as school vouchers out of the legislation. Alexander and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) offered amendments to include these provisions in the bill. The portability amendment would have slowed states to allocate Title I funds to districts based on the number of poor students who attend, but the White House criticized the idea saying that 25 percent of school districts with high concentrations of poverty, above 25 percent, would lose as much as $700 million in federal funds while low-poverty districts would gain as much as $470 million.

Full-Service Community Schools

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), offered an amendment that would let the federal government create a grant program for schools that become “community schools,” or schools that provide wraparound services such as health care and extracurricular activities all year. Alexander said the program wouldn’t add anything that wasn’t already provided in the bill — a common refrain from Alexander throughout the period during which Democrats offered amendments on pre-k and other programs. Still, the amendment passed.

A Change To The Burr Amendment

It may be a small win in the respect that the Burr amendment, offered by from Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) that would alter the Title I funding formula, from four formulas to one, did pass, but at least Democrats have bought themselves some time until it goes into effect.


The amendment, which was meant to allocate more equitably to states with rural areas, passed was altered so that states such as New York, Ohio, Maryland and others, would not lose funding immediately, as those states would have under the old Burr amendment. An analysis by the Center for American Progress shows that about 58 percent of students would receive less funding under the Burr amendment. The formula wouldn’t use state average per-pupil expenditures and would instead use national per-pupil expenditures. Under the revision, the new formula would only go into effect when appropriated money increased over $17 billion and current appropriation is $14.5 billion, which means it may be five to 10 years before those states feel the pain.

Tracking Data On Student Subgroups

Civil rights groups were concerned that the legislation would not track subgroups, such as students with disabilities, students of color and English Language Learners. Now there is an ability to track those student groups to understand if there are achievement gaps, and hopefully, encourage schools to do the work necessary to close them. However, some of those civil rights groups, as well as many Democrats, are worried that student data won’t mean anything without an enforcement tool, which was the point of the accountability amendment.

Booker offered an amendment that would add homeless youth and foster children to the subgroups tracked by the government. That allows homeless and foster children’s graduation rates on state report cards. It passed, though Alexander opposed it would add additional burdens on states.