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Refresher: What's in the Senate ESEA Rewrite, and Amendments to Watch For

As the U.S. Senate braces for debate on a bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—which could get underway as early as Thursday—we thought it would be a good idea to freshen up on what's in the bill.

The compromise bill, which was brokered by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., and introduced in April, includes education policies that are attractive to both sides of the aisle.

Among other things, the measure would:

  • Maintain the annual federal testing schedule;
  • Provide some flexibility on testing through a limited pilot program that allows states and school districts to develop innovative assessments;
  • Not include any provision allowing Title I dollars for low-income students to follow them to the school of their choice;
  • Maintain the requirement that states report disaggregated data for subgroups of students;
  • Require states to use disaggregated data in their accountability systems, but give them leeway to craft their own such systems;
  • Require states to identify low-performing schools, but wouldn't be specific about how many schools states need to target;
  • Maintain a dedicated funding stream for school improvement efforts
  • Require states to establish "challenging academic standards for all students," but prohibit the federal government from playing a role in the process of states choosing standards;
  • Specifically prohibit the federal government from pushing the Common Core State Standards;
  • Eliminate the No Child Left Behind Act waiver requirement that states develop and implement teacher-evaluation systems (though they could if they wanted);
  • List early-childhood education as an allowable use of funding for a broad swath of programs in the ESEA.

There are a lot of new policies this bill would implement, so be sure to read the more detailed run-down of the measure here.

During a three-day markup in April, Alexander and Murray worked with education committee members behind the scenes to ensure that amendments that they offered wouldn't compromise the bipartisan nature of the measure. In the end, 87 amendments were filed, but only about half of those were offered.

Among those adopted by the committee are amendments that would:

  • Authorize a competitive-grant program to allow states to better coordinate their early-childhood education programs;
  • Provide competitive grants to states to work with institutions of higher education to improve the quality of state assessments and eliminate any that are duplicative or of low-quality;
  • Clarify that nothing in the federal law can pre-empt state or local law regarding parents wishing to opt their student out from tests;
  • Alter the Title II funding formula (Title II covers things like teacher prep) so that it's based 80 percent on poverty and 20 percent on population;
  • Reinstate 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which the bill would have eliminated;
  • Provide education-related services to school districts and institutes of higher education dealing with a violent or traumatic crisis;
  • Increase the number of school counselors and social workers;
  • Authorize for six years the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act;
  • Improve access to high-quality STEM courses, and help train and recruit teachers for STEM subjects.

Be sure to check here, here, here, and here for the full markup debate and list of amendments offered and adopted or withdrawn.

So what should you be watching for on the Senate floor?

Title I: During the markup, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., offered and withdrew an amendment that would have allowed Title I dollars for low-income students to follow students to the public or private school of their choice. He plans to offer the measure on the floor, and Alexander said he would support it.

Accountability: Democrats plan to offer a slate of amendments aimed at beefing up safeguards for subgroups of students and adding language about states identifying and turning around their lowest-performing schools, the latter of which is a big White House priority.

Bullying: During the committee markup, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., offered and then withdrew an amendment based on the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which is aimed at protecting LGBT students from harassment and bullying. Sens. Alexander and Robert Casey, D-Pa., also offered and withdrew bullying amendments. All three will likely offer their amendments again during floor debate.

Dyslexia: Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., offered a bunch of amendments aimed at ensuring supports for students with dyslexia, but each of them was defeated. He said at the time he would offer them again during floor debate.

Background checks: Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Alexander have been sparring over how to require states to run background checks on all school employees, and it seems that the forthcoming ESEA debate would provide another opportunity for that.

Meanwhile, across the Capitol, the U.S. House of Representatives is also gearing up for debate on its Republican-backed version of the federal K-12 overhaul. You can read more about that here.

And if you want a little refresher on the entire reauthorization process thus far, check out this timeline of congressional action.

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