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Sen. Lamar Alexander Backs Changes to ESSA to Improve School Safety

Alexander at RNC.jpg


The chairman of the Senate education committee wants to change the main federal education law to allow schools to hire more counselors, make infrastructure improvements, and fund violence-prevention programs. 

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., announced Tuesday that he would introduce the School Safety and Mental Health Service Improvement Act at some point this week. Among other things, it would change Title IV, which gets $400 million in the fiscal 2018 federal budget, in order to let schools pay for new safety technology, "physical security," and training school personnel to help them recognize and defuse threats of violence. And his proposal would also change Title II to make it easier for the $2 billion program for educator professional development to fund school counselors. Both Title II and Title IV are part of the Every Student Succeeds Act—Title IV was created when ESSA became law in 2015.

However, some in Congress don't think Alexander's bill would truly break new ground or create new flexibility in ESSA, and only clarifies what's already in the law. 

School safety has been a prominent topic in Congress since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last month that left 17 students and school staff members dead. There are already several bills in Congress designed to enhanced school safety, although it's unclear what their prospects are on Capitol Hill. 

Alexander's upcoming legislation would also clarify what school safety activities are already permitted under Title II and Title IV. And it would direct U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy to establish a School Safety and Violence Prevention National Technical Assistance Center to assist school safety and violence prevention. 

In addition, the senator's bill would reauthorize and update a program that allows the U.S. Department of Education to work with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to help children "struggling with violence." The senator notes that the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Adminnistration has used this authority after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.

Alexander also wants a new presidential interagency task force to develop recommendations to improve school safety. 

It's worth noting that Title II and Title IV don't get a lot of love in recent federal budget proposals. President Donald Trump's budget proposal for fiscal 2019, for example, would eliminate Title II and Title IV, while the House budget for fiscal 2018 (which has yet to be finalized) would eliminate Title II. The Senate's fiscal 2018 budget proposal, however, would keep Title II funding level. 

And a Democratic aide in Congress said districts are already free to do what Alexander proposes in the bill for Title II and Title IV. The aide added that Alexander's proposal represents another attempt by Republicans to dodge a conversation about firearms and gun control on Capitol Hill. 

Check out a fact sheet on Alexander's upcoming proposals below:


Photo: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., at the Republican National Convention in 2016. Alexander said he will push for changes to the Every Student Succeeds Act to improve school safety. (Swikar Patel/Education Week)

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