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Senate Schedules Debate on Bipartisan ESEA Reauthorization

The U.S. Senate could begin debating a bipartisan bill that would overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on Tuesday, July 7.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., officially scheduled the bill for floor debate on Wednesday morning, just one day after 10 major education groups joined forces to demand senators prioritize the reauthorization, which had been languishing in the legislative queue for weeks.

The notice, which went out via email to senators, comes after weeks of speculation as to when—or even whether—the reauthorization would get to the floor after being overlooked by a series of other congressional priorities, most recently the Trade Promotion Authority. 

It's worth noting that the wheels often turn slowly in the Senate, with lots of procedural roadblocks available to lawmakers who want to gum up the works on a particular bill. And even if everyone is excited to get going on ESEA, other legislation can get in the way.

Still some education advocates celebrated on Twitter, including the two national teachers unions, which were part of the coalition that called on the Senate to schedule the bill for debate.

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Others remained a bit more reserved in their celebration, knowing that there's always something that could necessitate altering the schedule. 

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Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., co-authors of the bill, have previously promised an open amendment process, and senators have been readying amendments for weeks.

"I'm looking forward to debating our bipartisan bill on the Senate floor and continuing to make progress toward finally fixing No Child Left Behind in a way that works for states and schools and makes sure every child has access to a quality education, regardless of where they live, how they learn, or how much money their parents make," said Murray. "We still have a long way to go before we can send a bill to the President's desk, and I am committed to working with Democrats and Republicans to build on the progress we've made so far and keep improving and strengthening this bill."

The biggest debate will center around whether—and how—to beef up accountability provisions in the underlying bill. Last week a group of 36 civil rights organizations said in a letter to senators that without additional federal safeguards for disadvantaged students, the bipartisan ESEA measure "will not fulfill its functions as a civil rights law," and they will not support it.

They called for a slate of specific changes and pointed to various amendments that could fulfill their wishes, including the following:

  • An amendment from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., would require states to identify schools that don't meet the states' standards two years in a row. 
  • An amendment from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., would allow states to cross-tabulate graduation rate data.
  • An amendments from Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii., would tighten data reporting requirements on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
  • An amendment from Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., would address resource equity.

Another vigorous discussion will focus on school choice measures, including whether to allow Title I dollars for low-income students follow them to the public or private school of their choice. 

In general, expect a long debate, lasting at least through the week and potentially into the following week. After all, the last time the Senate got to cast a major federal K-12 vote was back in 2001, during the last reauthorization that resulted in the current iteration of ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act. And that bill was on the floor for almost two months.

Need a refresher on what the Alexander-Murray bill would do? Head over here for a primer.

Are we headed for an honest-to-goodness new ESEA? Even if it turns out to be smooth sailing in the Senate, it's still unclear what will happen on the other side of the Capitol.

The House of Representatives debated an NCLB rewrite earlier this spring. But GOP leaders yanked the bill from the floor, never putting it up for a final vote, when it became clear it didn't have enough support to pass. Democrats said the measure weakened protections for minorities and disadvantaged kids. And some Republicans thought it didn't go far enough in rolling back the federal role in K-12 education.

If the Senate is able to pass its bill in short order, will that spur momentum on the House side? We may find out later this summer.

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