Important Education Debate in Partisan Markup of Strengthening America’s Schools Act

Education

After two days of consideration, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) yesterday voted Senator Harkin’s Strengthening America’s Schools Act (SASA) out of committee with a 12-10 vote along party lines. The measure, which revamps No Child Left Behind (NCLB), underwent a highly partisan markup in committee. Still, both Chairman Harkin and Ranking Member Alexander expressed their desire to bring the bill to the floor and eventually to conference with the House, though it is unclear if or when the bill will be considered by the full Senate.

The Committee worked through SASA efficiently in two days, with one hiccup: a number of votes were delayed due to failure to have a quorum of Senators present. There was lively debate throughout the markup, which was welcome and necessary to move forward on overhauling NCLB. Underlying the debate was a fundamental disagreement on the role of the federal government in education. Though SASA moves much decision making to the state level by codifying the waiver process that the Obama Administration began, committee Republicans viewed the bill as federal overreach. This position is exemplified in the repeated refrain that SASA creates a “national school board.” As such, the Senators did not find much common ground, votes were primarily along party lines, and there were no substantial changes to the bill.

Some important issues were brought up during debate. Senators Franken and Sanders spoke about the difficulty that many rural districts have accessing competitive grants for lack of capacity to apply for those grants. This is problematic because it means that some districts and states are left out of these programs entirely, and these are states and districts that would benefit greatly from these grants. In a rare moment of (almost) bipartisanship during the markup, Senator Sanders voted “no at this time” on an amendment offered by Senator Roberts that would eliminate Race to the Top, one of the administration’s competitive grant programs codified in SASA, for this reason.

Senator Franken also spoke passionately about the importance of early childhood education, the success of existing federal investments in early childhood, and the need for the committee to consider these issues further. SASA includes a number of excellent provisions on early childhood, but a few important points were left out and no amendments addressed those issues.

Of the few amendments agreed to with a bipartisan vote, a Franken amendment that increases access to dual enrollment programs and early college high schools is of particular importance. By allowing districts to use additional funds for these important programs, schools will be better positioned to both re-engage disconnected youth and prevent dropouts. This amendment passed by unanimous consent, showing the committee’s dedication to improving academic outcomes for all children and youth. Senator Alexander, somewhat begrudgingly, admitted that “if we’re going to be a national school board, this is a good way to do it.”

A bipartisan vote also rejected an amendment by Senator Bennett that would have set up an Office of Rural Education Policy, modeled on the Office of Rural Health Policy. The creation of this office would have been a major step toward ensuring the unique needs of rural school districts are met.

Voting SASA out of committee, no matter how partisan the process was, is an important step forward in the long-overdue reauthorization of NCLB. It is also commendable that Chairman Harkin and Ranking Member Alexander are both committed to moving SASA through regular order, and want to take the next steps to getting it on the floor, passed, and to conference with the House bill. The House Education and Workforce Committee is expected to mark up their NCLB reauthorization sometime this summer, so there is indeed an outside chance that Congress could revamp NCLB this year.