The debate on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secretary Education Act, S 1177 (ESEA/No Child Left behind Act) began last Tuesday. At the same time the House leadership narrowly passed their education bill, HR 5, and approved it by a narrow Republican majority of 218 to 213. The final vote came after House leadership had pulled the bill from a final vote in February.

Many conservative House Republicans voted against HR 5 because they felt it did not go far enough in cutting funds and eliminating education programs and the federal role in education. Still in order to get enough Republican support the bill was amended on the floor to allow states to ignore many education law requirements while still drawing down federal education dollars. The White House has vowed to veto the House bill if it were to be delivered to the President. Passage allows the House to go to a conference committee negotiation when and if the Senate adopts their more bipartisan bill. The assumption is the Administration will be part of a three way negotiation during the summer and fall months.

In the Senate the debate began on what is a more traditional Senate reauthorization debate that is expected to last through this week.  There are several amendments that are of interest to children and child welfare advocates.  Senator Robert Casey (D-PA) is working on an amendment to expand universal pre-kindergarten funding. The amendment will both authorize and provide the necessary funding (paid for by closing a corporate tax break) for both Strong Start and the Preschool Development Grants for a five year period.   It provides $30 billion in mandatory formula and grant funding to states, with a state match, for high-quality, full-day preschool for four-year-old children from families earning below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).

His Senate colleague Patrick Tomey (R-PA) successfully advanced part of his amendment on background checks and prohibitions on school hiring practices regarding child sexual abuse. The Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act would require schools to conduct background checks on all employees and contractors who have unsupervised access to children It also prohibits schools from assisting in the placement of school personnel in another school setting if the school has credible information that the individual has engaged in sexual misconduct. The background check requirement was not adopted but the other part, what Senator Toomey has called “passing the trash” — the practice of a school helping a known child molester obtain a job at another school, and move on to other victims” was included in the ESEA bill.

In addition the final bill is expected to include bipartisan language by Senator Franken and Senator Grassley to implement protections for youth and children in foster care to mirror protections written into child welfare law in 2008 through the Fostering Connections to Success Act. The Franken-Grassley Educational Stability of Foster Youth Act would ensure children can remain in their original school or allow children to immediately enroll in a new school when it is not in their best interest to remain in their original school. It also provides other protections and access to records. The ESEA amendment is needed to apply equal pressure to the local education agencies similar to the requirements now imposed on local child welfare agencies.

The Senate unlike the House is carefully moving its bill in a bipartisan fashion. As the debate progresses Democrats want to be united on any changes so that they can occupy an important role and exert key pressure through the negotiations with the House on their vastly different bill. The presumption is that if House and Senate leaders can come to an agreement with the Administration such a deal could leverage bipartisan votes and that package would not be as dependent on conservative House Republicans.