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Rep. Scott, Civil Rights Groups: We Need More Accountability in Senate ESEA Bill

The U.S. Senate's bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act doesn't go nearly far enough when it comes to accountability for low-income students and racial minorities. That's according to Rep. Bobby Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, and key civil right groups, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. 

And the Republican-only House bill is even worse, they said.

The Senate bill "is weak on accountability. We need to be sure that there is something meaningful there," Scott told reporters on a conference call Thursday. 

Accountability Fix

Scott and the groups were hoping to make the bill better through an amendment, offered yesterday by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and a cadre of other senators.

The provision would have beefed up accountability for states in turning around their lowest-performing schools, required states to establish ambitious goals for student performance, and called on states to intervene in schools that aren't making headway in closing the achievement gap, among other things.

The Obama administration backed many of the ideas in the amendment, but it failed to pass. Still, it garnered a respectable 43 votes, including the support from one Republican (Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, for you Congress-geeks), even though the National Education Association urged a no-vote. (The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, didn't think the amendment went far enough in restoring the federal role in looking out for struggling kids and fixing foundering schools.) 

At first blush, it might seem like Scott isn't really an important player here. He's the top Democrat on the House education committee, sure, but the chamber was able to pass an NCLB rewrite bill earlier this month without any help from his caucus.

But, that legislation—which is way far to the right of current law and the Obama administration's NCLB waivers—barely squeaked through the House. Leaders were depending only on Republican votes and many GOP lawmakers felt it didn't go far enough in scaling back the federal role.  

Now, assuming it passes the Senate, as expected, the bill is about to go through the ringer of conference—where the House legislation will be combined with the more moderate Senate bill. And if the legislation is going to become an honest-to-goodness law, it will need President Barack Obama's signature.

That means the House bill is only going to get dragged to the left. And so the conference report will almost certainly need Democratic support to get through the House this time around. That makes Scott a key player in what comes next. 

And it sounds like the civil rights community has his ear.

"As it stands now, the bill is unacceptable," said Nancy Zirkin, the executive vice president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "We hope that Mr. Scott and [Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a sponsor of the Senate legislation] will be able to put some of the provisions in" that would beef-up accountability.

Scott and the groups weren't specific, though, about exactly where their accountability bottom line is—how far would the bill need to go for them to support it?

Testing Quandary

Importantly, some civil rights groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund or MALDEF, said they'd rather stick with the current, admittedly flawed NCLB law, and the Obama administration's waivers rather than give up on ESEA's identity as a civil rights law. Once that's gone, it'll be really hard to get it back, the groups said.

The groups, didn't say this, but by urging Congress not to pass a bill, they are rolling the dice on testing. Both bills maintain annual, statewide assessments, although the House measure allows parents to opt out of those tests without any penalties for schools. 

But, when Congress first started the reauthorization process, it looked like lawmakers might be poised to toss the testsAnd it's easy to see how a new administration, Republican or Democratic, might want take up that mantle, assuming ESEA doesn't get done under Obama.

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