U.S. Senate passes bipartisan overhaul of ESEA

After more than a week of debate, the U.S. Senate reached a final agreement on a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), or No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The body approved the new bill, The Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, with strong support and in a bipartisan manner, with a final vote of 81-17. The Texas delegation split its votes with Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) voting in favor and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) voting in opposition to the bill.

The Every Child Achieves Act was originally filed in April after its authors, Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA), spent months negotiating the bill. It quickly received a markup in committee and advanced to the Senate floor where debate on the bill began last week.

Throughout the process, the Senate bill was tightly managed in order to maintain strong and bipartisan support. Such a process has become rare for the Senate and is a stark contrast to the process seen in the House, where last week the body passed its own version of a reauthorization bill, known as The Student Success Act of 2015, with only Republican support. President Obama has expressed his intention to veto the House bill while being seemingly more supportive of the Senate bill. The two bodies will now be charged with negotiating a final bill that can pass both chambers and receive the President’s final approval.

The Senate bill

The final Senate bill maintains the crux of the bill as it was filed and left committee: it eliminates adequate yearly progress (AYP) and instead allows states to create their own accountability systems; maintains the annual federal testing schedule while adding limited flexibility for certain states and school districts; eliminates federal teacher evaluation system requirements; retains disaggregated data reporting requirements for student subgroups; mandates the adoption of challenging state standards but prohibits the federal government from having influence over that process; and requires states to identify struggling schools but allows states to determine the method(s) of intervention.

During the week-long debate on the floor of the Senate, 68 of the 78 considered amendments were adopted. Perhaps the most high-profile was one authored by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), which changes the formula used for calculating the amount of Title I dollars sent to states. Under the new formula, many states would stand to see gains in overall funding (including Texas, which is projected to see an increase in funding of more than $190 million) but several states would see significant loss. The funding formula change did ultimately make it onto the bill, but it would only go into effect once overall Title I funding hits $17 billion. (Title I funding is currently around $14.5 billion.)

Another highly anticipated amendment failed to receive enough votes to pass. The amendment was one authored by Democrats who support the bill’s overall intent to loosen the onerous federal accountability standards but feel the flexibility goes too far in that it fails to ensure the most disadvantaged students are properly educated. The amendment would have added requirements for educating student subgroups and intervening in struggling schools. While the amendment ultimately failed, it received the backing of almost every Democrat and one Republican.

Democrats were not the only members to suffer a big ticket item loss. The Senate also failed to pass Sen. Alexander’s voucher amendment that would have allowed Title I funding to follow students to the public or private school of their choice. This is often referred to as Title I portability. A similar portability amendment was later offered by Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and that amendment also failed. Sen. Scott’s version would have allowed money to follow the child to the public school of their choice but left out the private school voucher option. The House bill contains a provision that allows Title I portability within public schools for eligible students.

A few other noteworthy adopted amendments include an amendment by Sen. Bennet (D-CO) that requires states to establish a limit on the overall amount of time spent on assessments and an amendment by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) that establishes a full-service community schools grant. Only one of the considered amendments was offered by a senator from Texas, Sen. Cruz, and that amendment fell short of the required vote threshold.

Moving forward

This is the first time the U.S. Senate has passed a comprehensive overhaul of ESEA since 2001, and while momentous, there is still work to be done.

Because both chambers have advanced separate versions of a bill to reauthorize ESEA, the legislation will next face a conference committee. The Senate and House will each assign members to sit on the committee, which will be expected to draft a compromise bill that satisfies both chambers as well as the President. That committee is sure to debate many of the items mentioned above. For example, Republicans will want to maintain their only provision aimed at school choice, the Title I public school portability piece contained in the House bill. Meanwhile, Democrats will fight for increased accountability measures such as those proposed in the Senate, and while the Senate Democratic accountability amendment failed, it did receive a strong backing from Democrats, which strongly positions it as their bargaining chip in conference committee.

Stay tuned to Teach the Vote as ESEA reauthorization moves forward in the U.S. Congress.

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  1. Pingback: Congress begins ESEA conference work | Teach the Vote

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