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Day One of Senate ESEA Debate: Rift Over Accountability Grows


For the first time since 2001, the U.S. Senate on Tuesday began debating a bill that would overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—though the fireworks are yet to come.

Day One of the likely two-week-long federal K-12 debate was more ceremonial than anything, with the bill's co-authors, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., thanking each other for their hard work and dedication to preserving the bipartisan aspect of the measure to rewrite the law's current version, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Alexander spent a fair amount of time on the chamber floor outlining what he considers the most important aspects of the bill, namely that it would roll back the influence of the federal government and provide additional flexibility to states and local school districts, especially when it comes to creating their own accountability systems.

"If you, like I do, believe high standards and teacher evaluations are the underpinnings of a great education system ... you do not want to create a backlash to those efforts by insisting on them from Washington, D.C.," he said.

The Senate education committee chairman also dedicated much of his floor time to emphasizing that the bill would prohibit the federal government from mandating or incentivizing any particular set of academic standards, including the Common Core State Standards.

"If they want common core, they can have common core," he said of the states "If they want half of common core, they can have that. If they want anti-common core, they can have that."

(You can read more about the bill here.)

But below the surface of pleasantries and backslapping, a very decisive policy rift continued to grow—whether or not to beef up accountability provisions in the bill.

Murray used part of her floor speech to note that she'd be pressing for additional language in the coming days.

"Before No Child Left Behind it was easy for states to overlook their performance," Murray said. "The overall average of all students allowed achievement gaps to be swept under the rugs. We cannot go back to those days."

She added: "States should still be required to identify the schools that are struggling the most, and they need to identify the schools in which groups of students aren't getting enough support."

And while the White House didn't issue a veto threat to the Senate bill, it did outline very specific accountability-related changes it wanted to see in a Statement of Administration Policy released Tuesday afternoon.

Joining the chorus for additional safeguards, the Council of Chief State School Officers also said Tuesday that it would be seeking three specific accountability changes to the bill, including that states identify the poorest-performing 5 percent of schools and that they intervene in schools with graduation rates below 67 percent.

The mounting call for increased accountability comes more than a month after a group of 36 civil rights organizations banded together demanding changes to the Senate bill.

Alexander sought to fend off such objections during his floor speech by outlining why such calls for stricter accountability provisions are misguided. Among his reasons: States are better prepared today to set higher standards, to evaluate teachers, to develop good assessments, and to develop good accountability systems than they were when NCLB passed in 2001.

Similarly, Murray attempted to head off likely forthcoming amendments regarding Title I portability and vouchers.

During the course of Tuesday's debate, various senators took to the floor to discuss the bill and talk about amendments they'll be offering. Here is a list of the amendments that have been filed so far, though we expect many more in the coming days, especially related to accountability, bullying, early childhood education, Title I portability, and vouchers.

  • Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D.: Would require the Secretary of Education and the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a study regarding elementary and secondary education in rural and poverty areas of Indian country.
  • Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.: Would ensure local governance of education.
  • Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah: Would establish a committee on student privacy policy.
  • Hatch: Would allow for the renegotiation of contracts for schools school districts labeled poor-performing.
  • Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo.: Would enable school districts to use Title I funds for low-income students for dual or concurrent enrollment programs at eligible schools.
  • Alexander: Would require criminal background checks for school employees.
  • Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.: Would strengthen the role of school librarians and effective school library programs.
  • Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.: Would enable the use of certain state and local administrative funds for fiscal support teams to identify how money could be more effectively spent.
  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.: Would provide for additional mean of certifying children, youth, parents, and families as homeless.
  • Reed: Would provide a definition of inexperienced teacher.
  • Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.: Would protect students from sexual and violent predators.
  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.: Would establish a voluntary pilot program for interstate teaching applications.
  • McCaskill: Would enable states, as a consortium, to use certain grant funds to voluntarily develop a process that allows teachers who are licensed or certified in a participating state to teach in other participating states.
  • Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.: Would to end discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools.
  • Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.: Would protect children from convicted pedophiles, child molesters, and other sex offenders infiltrating out schools and from schools "passing the trash" - helping pedophiles obtain jobs at other schools.
  • Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.: Would allow local educational agencies to use parent and family engagement funds for financial literacy activities.
  • Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.: Would add career and technical education as a core academic subject.
  • Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio: Would improve certain provisions relating to charter schools.
  • Brown: Would provide assistance for the modernization, renovation, and repair of elementary school and secondary school buildings in public school districts and community colleges across the U.S.
  • Brown: Would allow Title IV funds, which are used for community learning centers, to be used for a site resource coordinator.
  • Brown: Would establish a full-service community schools grant program.
  • Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo.: Would to amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.
  • Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.: Would allow comprehensive services and a comprehensive services coordinator to be provided to a greater number of students through school-wide programs.
  • Manchin: Would enable school districts to use Title IV funds for programs and activities that promote volunteerism and community service.
  • Manchin: Would support children facing substance abuse in the home.
  • Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.: Would amend Title I in an effort to close what's known as the comparability loophole.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.: Would to amend Title II, which is used for things like teacher preparation, to include specialized instructional support personnel in the literacy development of children. 

Meanwhile, across the Capitol, the U.S. House of Representatives began the process for reconsidering its ESEA reauthorization measure. The Rules Committee, which decides how bills are debated on the chamber floor, met Tuesday night and cleared four additional amendments that members will debate and vote on when the bill is taken back up on the floor as early as Wednesday: 

  • Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz.: Would allow parents to opt their students out of the testing requirements and exempts schools from including students that have opted out in the schools' participation requirements.
  • Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C.: Would send funding under the current law back to states in the form of block grants, and states would then be able to direct that funding to any education purpose under state law (modeled after the A-PLUS Act).
  • Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind.: Would set the authorization from fiscal year 2016 through 2019.
  • Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.: Would require states to have college- and career-ready standards and set performance, growth, and graduation rate targets for all student subgroups. The amendment also includes performance targets for English language learners and students with disabilities.
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