After months of negotiations between Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Michael Enzi (R-WY), and after 15 hours of debate over amendments last week, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), made it out of committee late in the evening on October 20th. The measure, previously known as No Child Left Behind, made it out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions by a vote of 15-7, with the goal of moving it to the Senate floor before year’s end, or just before the Administration’s waivers on ESEA will be implemented.

From the beginning of the mark-up, the whole process seemed a little strange, much like an organized circus – Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) placed barriers to delay mark-up activity (introduced 74 amendments, trying to repeal the entire law, utilized an obscure parliamentary maneuver that cut the debate short). Once things settled down, work finally commenced on debating and voting on the amendments to the bill (originally, 144 had been filed). In the end, only 53 amendments were considered, 23 were adopted, 10 were defeated and 20 were withdrawn. The First Focus Campaign for Children actively supported a number of amendments, some were adopted, some were withdrawn and others, to our disappointment, were rejected altogether. Here is a list of the amendments which we were actively engaged in:

Amendments that were agreed to

• An amendment by Senator Al Franken (D-MN) would provide educational stability for children in foster care. Furthermore, it allows students in foster that are experiencing a transition in housing to remain in their current school if it is in their best interest. It also requires the collaboration between child welfare liaisons and schools in order to meet the needs of children and youth in foster care.
• An amendment by Senator Bernard Sanders (I-VT) on out-of-school youth would address the drop-out issue by tracking students as they transition from 8th grade to high school for the purposes of painting a clear picture of the dropout magnitude (States would know exactly who these students are and why they are dropping out). The amendment would only track students within a school district.
• An amendment by Senator Robert Casey (D-PA) would increase access to high-quality courses for low-income students. The amendment institutes a 5 year grant program which would fund instruction in such subjects as the arts, civics, foreign languages, geography, economics, and social studies, among others. These funds are especially important given the fiscal crises states and school boards are facing. Tightened budgets have led to cuts in funding for these essential subjects, especially in districts that serve lower income populations.

Amendments that were rejected

• An amendment by Senator Bernard Sanders (I-VT) would define a teacher as being “Highly Qualified” on the basis of having completed a State-approved traditional or alternative teacher-preparation program, having passed a State-approved teacher performance assessment and obtaining credentialing (certification) in their respective subject matter. While we were incredibly disappointed with the outcome on this particular amendment, we will continue to stand behind the rationale of this amendment with the goal of giving our most vulnerable students access to fully-prepared (and fully effective) teachers on the first day of school.
• In relationship to the previous amendment, another amendment by Senator Bernard Sanders (I-VT) would increase student access to Highly Qualified Teachers (equitable distribution). The State would provide technical assistance to school districts for the equitable distribution of Highly Qualified teachers with the goal of decreasing teacher attrition and building capacity within schools with a high concentration of students that are poor, students of color, English learners and students with disabilities. To our great displeasure, this amendment was also not agreed to.

For complete coverage on all the amendments, click here.

After months of negotiations, not to mention that we have waited for reauthorization since 2007 (the year NCLB expired), all of a sudden there is a dramatic rush to revamp the law by the holidays (the bill is over 800 pages long and the mark-up lasted less than two days). We have waited this long just so they can rush through a reauthorization with a bill that is far from perfect and that the First Focus Campaign for Children (and several other education advocacy groups) cannot wholeheartedly support in its current form. As we move toward a Senate floor vote, there is always a chance that the bill may become even worse with off-committee amendments being offered that place politics ahead of sound education policy (in this world, so it so difficult to separate the two). As the process moves forward, the First Focus Campaign for Children will continue to be engaged so issues such as developing a national strategy on early childhood education, integrated supports and services for students and parents, Highly Qualified Teachers and maintaining accountability on students are all revisited. To say the least, a rocky process continues to lie ahead.