Senate Rebuffs ESEA Amendment to Let States Opt Out of Federal Accountability
Day Three of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization debate in the U.S. Senate opened and closed in the span of a few short hours Thursday, with the chamber passing 14 amendments and rejecting one that underscored the precarious path co-authors Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., must traverse to maintain the bipartisan nature of the bill.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., offered the highly contentious A PLUS Act amendment, which would have allowed states to opt out of federal accountability entirely and send funding under the current law back to states in the form of block grants.
"It will help expand local control of our schools and return federal education dollars where they belong, closer to the classroom," Daines said. "States would be freed from Washington-knows-best requirements."
And Sen. Mike Lee, R- Utah, chimed in, arguing that unless the amendment was adopted, the underlying bill would have "the same disappointing results of No Child Left Behind [the current iteration of ESEA]."
But Alexander slammed the proposal, knowing full well that if adopted it would sink his chances of getting the ESEA reauthorization across the finish line.
"This is unnecessary, misintentioned, won't pass, and undermines the bipartisan agreement that we've reached," he quickly quipped before putting it up for a vote.
As Alexander predicted (and as was widely assumed), the proposal, which needed to overcome a 60-vote threshold, failed, 44-54.
The same amendment also failed to garner enough votes during the ESEA reauthorization debate Wednesday in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Notably, Alexander postponed a vote on an amendment from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., that would have allowed states to cross-tabulate student achievement data for subgroups of students.
What does that mean? It means that things like graduation rate and academic assessment data would be not only disaggregated, but also segmented by more than one subgroup, such as by race and gender together, or by gender and disability together, or by race and disability together.
The proposal is one of several that the White House, civil rights groups, the Council of State Chief School Officers, and others are hoping will be adopted in order to beef up accountability in the underlying bill.
Alexander said he'd like to postpone the vote in order to work with Warren and Murray to finesse some of the language in the amendment. The fact that Alexander thinks they could strike a deal bodes well for the proposal on the whole, and if adopted, would go a long way in appeasing some of the major accountability concerns that Democrats, civil rights groups, and others have with the bill.
Want to know more? Here is a letter from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights sent to senators Thursday.
The other high-profile item of the day was a background check amendment from Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., which he modified overnight amid stiff opposition to the entire proposal.
Originally, the amendment would have required criminal background checks of all school employees as well as prohibit states from a practice known as "passing the trash," in which a school allows a known child molester to resign quietly and helps that person find a new teaching job.
Toomey has unsuccessfully offered the amendment to several bills in hopes that it becomes law. But senators on both sides of the aisle have opposed the specific language of the background-check portion, arguing that it would constrain schools' ability to hire, and would create costly and redundant paperwork. Instead, they've favored similar proposals from Alexander and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.
Ultimately, however, Toomey agreed to remove the background-check language from the amendment and offer only the portion prohibiting schools from passing on known criminal offenders.
"We have had many long, often difficult conversations," conceded Toomey. "We started in what seemed like irreconcilable differences on this issue. Despite the stiff opposition there was at times, we were able to find common ground."
The amendment passed unanimously, 98-0.
Here are some additional amendments that passed without much debate or fanfare by voice vote:
- An amendment from Sen. Sherrod Brown, R-Ohio, that would allow the use of federal funds to put school coordinator resources in schools. PASSED 98-0;
- An amendment from Sen. Rob Portman, D-Ohio, that would provide supports for students addicted to drugs. PASSED via voice vote;
- An amendment from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., that would make career and technical education a core subject. PASSED via voice vote;
- An amendment from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would allow school authorities to certify that a student is homeless. PASSED via voice vote;
- An amendment from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that would allow schools to use federal funds on programs that promote volunteerism and community service. PASSED via voice vote;
- An amendment from Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., that would prevent federal intrusion into how local schools are governed. PASSED via voice vote;
- An amendment from Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., that would require states to submit their Title I and Title II plans to governors for review. PASSED via voice vote.
Alexander and Murray also offered a slate of pre-agreed upon amendments under unanimous consent, which the Senate adopted en bloc, without votes:
- An amendment from Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., that allows funds to be used for dual or concurrent enrollment programs;
- An amendment from Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that allows teachers certified in one state to teach in other states without completing additional licensures;
- An amendment from Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that increases access to STEM for underrepresented groups of students;
- An amendment from Gardner regarding charter school representatives;
- An amendment from Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., that ensures that if a child with disabilities needs an adaptive device to take a test that the child is familiar with the device before the test day;
- An amendment from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., that allows districts to create STEM specialty schools or STEM specific programs within schools.
In addition, Alexander and Murray readied a new slate of six amendments, two of which they scheduled for a vote Monday evening.