Late last week, the Senate passed S. 1177, its reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). As we have noted before, ESEA has historically been a major civil rights bill meant to ensure access to a high-quality education, regardless of a student’s race, income, sex, or other circumstances. Unfortunately, both S. 1177 and H.R. 5 (the House reauthorization that passed the week before) fall short.
Fortunately, it’s not over yet. The next stop is conference where Senators and Representatives will reconcile the differences between S. 1177 and H.R. 5 and produce a compromise bill that will be voted on in both the House and Senate. As a recap, here’s a rundown of how our priority amendments fared on the Senate floor and what we’ll be watching in conference:
The Senate bill includes a compromise version of the Warren-Gardner Amendment, which asks states to report student achievement and graduation rate data in a manner that can be cross-tabulated by race/ethnicity, gender, disability, and English proficiency. This information will allow communities, educators, and parents to find out how students at the intersections of these categories are faring and better tailor interventions. In fact, the amendment was such a no-brainer that it passed by voice vote.
The Senate also passed by a voice vote Senator Murray’s High School Data Transparency amendment, which requires schools to publicly report data on athletic participation by gender and race, as well as expenditures by team. The base bill also contains a provision that requires states and districts to include in their education plans a description of how they will address the needs of expectant and parenting students, acknowledging that pregnancy and parenting are leading causes of dropout [PDF] among at-risk youth.
But, the Senate’s interest in transparency and accountability stopped there. Bizarrely, the Senate rejected a requirement that states actually do something when one or more “subgroups” of students (like African American students or students with disabilities) fail to meet state academic targets. An amendment, which was offered by Senator Murphy and others, would have required intervention in the bottom five percent of schools in each state, in any school that fails one or more subgroup of students for two consecutive years, and in any high school that is not graduating more than one-third of its students. The amendment failed, but only after receiving a noteworthy 43 “yes” votes in the face of extreme opposition.
The Senate also rejected, by a vote of 46-50, the bipartisan Baldwin-Reed-Brown-Kirk amendment that would have ensured that critical educational resources—like access to quality teachers and school leaders; rigorous, well-rounded coursework; and up-to-date materials, technology and supplies—are available to the students who need them the most. The amendment would have required states to identify and address disparities between school districts. The Senate also rejected the bipartisan Hirono-Heller amendment, by a vote of 47-50. This amendment would have required disaggregation of student achievement and graduation rate data by Asian American and Pacific Islander subgroups to help shed light on disparities hidden in an otherwise large and diverse group of students.
Sadly, Senator Franken’s Student Non-Discrimination Act amendment, which would have prohibited discrimination in K-12 public schools based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity, failed by a vote of 52-45. Yes, you read that right. Even though a majority of the Senate supported the amendment, under the cockamamie Senate rules requiring a 60-vote threshold for some votes, the amendment did not make it into the bill. But clearly, it has a lot of support—with good reason: it’s time for Congress to say explicitly that schools cannot discriminate against LGBT students.
For all of the flaws in S. 1177, the House ESEA bill (H.R. 5) is, frankly, even worse. So, the conferees have their work cut out for them to produce a bill truly deserving of the civil rights banner.
We will be weighing in to help improve the bill. After all, ESEA’s promise of a high-quality education for all students should include all students. The bill needs significant improvements to live up to its promise as a civil rights law—and to earn our support.