Following two days of proceedings, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) advanced his Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization bill, known as the Strengthening America’s Schools Act (SASA), S. 1094, out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, on a 12 to 10 party-line vote. This following summary of the markup and an outline of what to expect next, is to help school leaders understand what this could mean for you.

  • Read the joint letter from NAESP and National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) responding to the legislation here.
  • Read a summary of the bill provisions here.

This bill generally represents a Democrat vision of the federal role in public education, rather than a bipartisan effort to advance reauthorization, a departure from the 2012 bipartisan HELP Committee ESEA bill. A bipartisan effort is necessary to move any ESEA rewrite through the Senate and House, and NAESP looks forward to the opportunity to work with the Senate and House education committees to reauthorize ESEA in the 113th Congressional session.

Coming in at over 1,100 pages, the Strengthening American Schools Act mirrors the U.S. Department of Education waiver plans, which require teacher and principal evaluations and sets out to close student achievement gaps in the lowest-achieving schools.

Senator Harkin contended that 37 states are already implementing the accountability and evaluations systems required in his bill as they are implementing the U.S. Department of Education flexibility waivers. He continues to state the bill reflects current reality and the federal government should be a partner with states.

The drawn-out deliberation on the Harkin legislation at times lacked the usually robust debate on varying philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans about the federal role in education, and a lack of quorum required to debate and vote on offered amendments completely halted discussion of the bill during the second day proceedings.

The Harkin legislation was amended with mostly partisan amendments. Of the 40 amendments filed, nearly half were not debated, and ultimately 10 were approved, including nine amendments offered by Democrats and one Republican amendment. HELP Committee Members identified several issues, such as competitive grant preferences for rural school districts and requiring charter schools are held to the same accountability measures as all public schools, that could need modifications before this bill moves to the Senate floor.

Republican Alternative

HELP Committee Republicans, led by Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN), introduced their own ESEA bill that was offered as an amendment to replace the Harkin legislation, but failed on a party-line vote 10-12. During the markup, Republican’s emphasized on numerous occasions that S. 1094 was “NCLB on steroids”. Senator Alexander cited the need to relinquish decisions about how to education students to the state and local level rather than creating a “national school board”.

Republicans identified the teacher and principal evaluation requirement, performance targets for students, comparability and school choice as some of the larger differences between the two offered bills.

Notable Amendments Debated and Adopted

  • Tammy Baldwin (D-WI): Following a needs analysis, expanded learning time would need to be considered for two school improvement models for lowest performing schools.  Agreed to by voice vote. This codifies a requirement from current federal regulation.
  • Patty Murray (D-WA): Requires military-connected children to be reported. Adopted 13-9.
  • Patty Murray (D-WA): Title IX reporting requirements for K-12 schools, similar to what is required for higher education institutions. Adopted 13-9.
  • Chris Murphy (D-CT): Allows federal funds that support schools after traumatic event to fund school construction under limited circumstances. Agreed to by voice vote.
  • Lisa Murkowski (R-AK): Amends Alaska Native Education Equity Program. Agreed to by voice vote.

Notable Amendments Debated and Failed

  • Michael Bennet (D-CO): Authorizes a new Office of Rural Policy at the U.S. Department of Education. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) cited varying federal definition of ‘rural’ as a reason to oppose this amendment. Failed 11-11.
  • Richard Burr (R-NC): Title II formula change to increase allocation based on state poverty levels. Failed 8-14. Senator Kay Hagen (D-NC) supported the amendment while Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Pat Roberts (R-KS) opposed.
  • Pat Roberts (R-KS): Clarified the Secretary’s authority to offer ESEA flexibility waivers. Failed 10-12.
  • Pat Roberts: Eliminate references to Race to the Top. Failed 10-12. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) voted no “at this time”, citing frustration with lack of assistance to rural states and districts.
  • Lamar Alexander (R-TN): Removes requirement to conduct teacher and principal evaluation and would rather encourage evaluation. Removes federal definition of a highly qualified teacher. Failed 10-12.
  • Johnny Isakson (R-GA) Removes cap on alternative assessment. Failed 9-12.
  • Rand Paul (R-KY)/ Tim Scott (R-SC): Allowed Title I funds to follow students to public or private schools. Failed 8-14. Republicans Mark Kirk (IL) and Lisa Murkowsi (AK) voted no.
  • Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced, and then withdrew, an amendment to clarify that charter schools must be held to same accountability systems as all public schools.

The Next Steps

The general consensus before now was that the Senate legislation had virtually no realistic path for approval by the Senate, considering the partisan process and the vast differences with the House-proposed legislation. But perhaps the most telling message of the markup was that Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said on several occasions that he looks forward to debating Harkin’s ESEA rewrite on the floor with an open amendment process. Senator Harkin spoke of his hope to gain floor time from Senate leadership this summer, although a busy summer legislative calendar leaves limited available time for this major education legislation. The last time ESEA was debated in the Senate was in 2001, which took over a month.

The ESEA rewrite debated in 2012 by the Senate HELP Committee, which gained bipartisan support from the most senior Republican Senators on the Committee at the time, never made it to the Senate floor. This was due in large part to the differences between the Senate and the House ESEA legislation. Chairman Harkin intends to bring his bill to the floor this year, but questions remain if and when that will happen.

On June 19th, the House-proposed ESEA legislation the Student Success Act, H.R. 5, which is very different than the Senate-approved legislation, is scheduled to be debated in the House Education and Workforce Committee. It is expected to be approved on a party-line vote and House leadership has indicated it will move to the House floor sometime in July. 

Without ESEA reauthorization becoming law, the states not granted state flexibility waivers are forced to work under a system that nearly everyone agrees does not work for students and educators.