Senate Democrats Introduce Education Reform Bill

June 6, 2013
From: Isaac Brown, Legislative Counsel
Vol. 13:04

Senate Democrats Introduce Education Reform Bill
Committee Plans to Vote Next Week

Yesterday, Senate Democrats introduced legislation reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, P.L. 89-10). ESEA was enacted in 1965 and is the primary source of federal funding for K-12 public education. The law was most recently reauthorized as part of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. Although that legislation expired in 2007, the law is still in effect, and schools that receive federal aid must adhere to its requirements.

The bill introduced yesterday, the Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013, marks Congress’s first serious effort to reauthorize the law in two years. The bill’s lead sponsor is Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. While Chairman Harkin had hoped to release the bill earlier, its introduction was delayed as his staff negotiated with the top Republican on the committee, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Exhaustive efforts by both senators to reach an accord failed; as a result, the bill enjoys the support of 11 Democratic cosponsors and no Republicans.

While some of the bill’s most controversial provisions deal with sensitive issues such as teacher evaluation and tenure, I am pleased to report that Senator Harkin’s bill includes a number of provisions that the arts community supported during the last ESEA reform attempt. These include listing the arts as a core academic subject and naming the arts and music as enrichment activities in the Expanded Learning Time and Supporting Successful, Well-Rounded Students sections. The bill also amends ESEA to require states to develop core standards for key subjects such as math, reading and “creative arts” for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade. These standards are intended to bring early education programs into “alignment” with existing standards for grades 4-12, which already include the arts as key subjects.

When introducing the bill yesterday, Chairman Harkin said he plans to hold a markup of the bill in the HELP Committee next week. (Markup is when a committee meets to consider amendments and vote on passage of a bill.) This is an exceptionally fast time line for a bill of this magnitude, and indicates that he is hoping to have the Senate pass the bill before it adjourns for the August recess (tentatively scheduled to begin August 3).

Although passage in committee is all but assured (Democrats control the body by a margin of 12-10), the bill’s pathway to becoming law is much murkier. While Senate Democrats control the chamber, floor rules allow any member to block a vote on the legislation by a filibuster, which requires a 60-vote margin to override. Then, should the Senate pass the bill, it will face even stronger opposition in the House, where Republican leaders plan to propose their own bill.

If you have any questions about the legislation, please do not hesitate to e-mail me or call me directly at 202-540-9162.