Thursday, April 16, 2015

After 3 days of considering bipartisan legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and nearly 60 amendments, the Senate HELP Committee advanced the legislation, enabling it to be next considered on the Senate floor under an open amendment process. Floor action is now expected before the end of May.

Under the agreed framework, the bill critically retains the arts are a core academic subject. Under current law, "arts" cover all the disciplines, such as dance, music, theater and visual arts. This definition enables access to critical federal resources, ensuring that all students should be able to reap the benefits of a full, comprehensive education.

Through a widely supported and bipartisan amendment, the bill also will continue authorization for the 21st Century Community Learning Center afterschool program, which supports afterschool, out-of-school programs and expanded learning time in schools. Afterschool programs are proven to help working families and improve academic achievement. The amendment to reinstate this program was led by Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Al Franken (D-MN).

Also accepted on a voice vote was an amendment by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) to establish a literacy and arts program with charter schools.

Another amendment offered by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) would have permitted states to further partner with non-profits organizations in order to increase the number of students receiving a “well-rounded education.” Funding would be used to improve high-quality instruction in various subjects, including the arts, computer science, environmental education, financial literacy, and foreign languages, among others, in high-need school districts. His amendment failed.

On the subject of early education, Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Casey (D-PA) offered an amendment creating a competitive, pre-K grant program to target additional resources to low- and moderate-income children to improve early childhood education coordination, quality, and access. The amendment passed by a vote voice. Another amendment with wide-support was offered by Sens. Casey (D-PA), Murkowski (R-AK), Sanders (I-VT), Franken (D-MN), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), and Susan Collins (R-ME) to continue the Ready To Learn competitive grant program that utilizes public television to build math and reading literacy especially for low-income children. The Ready To Learn initiative is a cooperative agreement of the U.S. Department of Education, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS, and the Ready To Learn Partnership. PBS member public television stations nationwide are important partners in the initiative.

Overall, the bill has retained its bipartisanship. However, many of the more controversial amendments were withdrawn and may be reconsidered on the floor by the full Senate. As it currently stands, the legislation represents one of the strongest chances for new authorization, which expired in 2007 and is long-overdue. This is in juxtaposition to the House ESEA reauthorization bill, which was pulled from the floor just before consideration and whose passage still remains unclear.