Published Online: October 20, 2011
By Alyson Klein
After a long delay, the Senate education committee approved a bill Thursday night that would rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but the measure is certain to encounter further debate on the Senate floor.
The bill, sponsored by the committee’s chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and its ranking Republican, Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, garnered support from all of the committee’s Democrats and three Republicans—Sen. Enzi, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
Sen. Harkin hopes to move the bill to the floor of the Senate before Thanksgiving, and he believes it’s “possible” that Congress could approve a rewritten version of the nation’s main education law before Christmas—in time to negate the need for the Obama administration’s waiver plan.
The bill would change several aspects of the current ESEA, known, at least for now, as the No Child Left Behind Act.
It would scrap the accountability system at the heart of the nearly 10-year-old NCLB Act—adequate yearly progress, or AYP. Instead, it would place the federal focus on the lowest-performing schools, including high schools with high-drop rates. The measure would call on states to craft college-and-career standards, and it would streamline the Department of Education by consolidating 82 programs into around 40.
The measure would retain the NCLB law’s regime of testing in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and it would continue to require states to disaggregate data by particular subgroups of students, including racial minorities.
But it would scrap the requirement that states set annual, measurable goals—a move that drew stringent opposition from the civil rights community, including disability advocacy groups who have long seen a champion in Sen. Harkin. In an interview after the markup, Sen. Harkin said that, ultimately, “we will not lose the support of disability groups.”
Several amendments to the Harkin-Enzi bill were floated during the two-day markup leading up to Thursday’s vote in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Among them, an approved amendment would let states submit their own ideas for turning around the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools.
That provision, sponsored by Sen. Alexander would retain the six turnaround models spelled out in the ESEA reauthorization bill introduced last week by Sens. Harkin and Enzi. The amendment would add a seventh option, allowing districts to come up with their own turnaround ideas, then submit them to the U.S. Secretary of Education for approval.
Speaking on the second day of the committee’s markup of the bill, Sen. Alexander said his amendment would allow states to come up with their own best interventions for the lowest-performing schools. He said his own home state, Tennessee, has an excellent new state schools chief and governor who may come up with their own ideas for low-performing schools.
When he was governor of Tennessee, Sen. Alexander said, “I never thought Washington was ahead of me.”
But seven Democrats on the committee—including Sen. Harkin and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.—voted against the amendment, which passed with unanimous support from Republican members.
“We are talking about the bottom 5 percent of schools,” said Sen. Bennet. “None of us send our children to those schools. None of us has grandchildren in those schools. … My hope is that whatever these models are, they are at least as robust as the ones that are contained in the legislation. Otherwise we’re going to have those children who are marooned in those 5 percent of schools, marooned in those schools for the rest of their K-12 education, for the rest of their lives.”
After the vote, a Senate GOP aide gave Mary Kusler, the manager of federal advocacy for the National Education Association, a congratulatory hug. The NEA put its political heft behind the provision.
Ms. Kusler was happy with the outcome. The NEA has not been a huge fan of the Obama administration’s turnaround models, in part because the union considers them a federal intrusion into what it sees as a state and local interest. And many of the existing models require the removal of teachers, or call for merit pay.
“We applaud the passage of Sen. Alexander’s amendment to add additional flexibility to the turnaround models in the bill,” she said in a statement. “If you want to make lasting, sustainable changes, you must engage all of the people who are involved—educators, parents, administrators, and community members.”
Amendments from a number of senators were accepted during the markup:
Amendments Turned Down
Other key amendments were rejected, including:
The watch-word for this markup seems to be “withdrawn.” Democrats, in particular, seem to be introducing amendments that take a stand on a particular issue, and then pulling them back without a vote. It’s a way of planting a marker on policy without holding up the proceedings.
Some of these amendments are likely to be offered when the full Senate debates the bill, which could happen before Christmas if leaders on the education committee have their way. Among the examples:
One last tidbit: The new name for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act? The Elementary and Secondary Education Act. No Child Left Behind has become a toxic brand, so the committee is looking to get rid of the name and go back to the classic version.
You can read this article on Education Weekly here.
Vol. 31, Issue 09