On July 16th the Senate passed the “Every Child Achieves Act” (S. 1177) which reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), by a bipartisan vote of 81-17. The ESEA sets the vision for elementary and secondary education in the country. The bill’s most recent reauthorization, entitled “No Child Left Behind,” increased the federal government’s role in education by requiring schools to test, report, and answer for student progress. Congress has been unable to pass a new reauthorization since No Child Left Behind expired in 2007, leaving its requirements in place. Senator Alexander (R-TN) and Senator Murray (D-WA), the Chair and Ranking Members of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which is responsible for the bill’s reauthorization, have worked to develop a bipartisan and comprehensive reauthorization. This year’s bill shifts focus away from testing and gives individual states and school districts more control over which measures to adopt to improve performance. The bill also includes a new section dedicated to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.
The STEM section, introduced by Senator Klobuchar (D-MN) and Senator Hoeven (R-ND) during the committee markup, narrowly passed a committee vote. The new section is designed to improve student achievement and instruction quality in STEM fields in K-12 education. It directs the Department of Education (ED) to establish a grant program to improve the quality of instruction and engagement in STEM subjects for underserved communities. Funds also go towards recruitment, training, mentorship, and professional development of teachers. This includes the creation of a national STEM master teachers corps, which the bill states is “a state-led effort to elevate the status of the STEM teaching profession by recognizing, rewarding, attracting, and retaining outstanding science, technology, engineering, and mathematics teachers … by offering such teachers additional compensation, instructional resources, and instructional leadership roles.” The bill also charges the ED’s Institute of Education Sciences to develop means to measure the efficacy of these new STEM activities. Senator Klobuchar explained the importance of investing in STEM education stating, “To stay competitive in the global economy, we need a 21st century education system that gives our students the skills they need to be successful in high-tech, high-wage jobs.” Senator Hoeven added that STEM education develops important skills used in all fields, stating that, “This amendment will help ensure our students are able to access STEM education, which also promote problem-solving, collaboration, communication and critical-thinking skills.”
During the Senate floor debate two additional STEM amendments were passed by unanimous consent. Senate Amendment 2108 proposed by Senator Gillibrand (D-NY) improves access to high quality programs, courses, and grants for students who are members of groups underrepresented in STEM fields. Such groups may include female students, minority students, English learners, children with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged students. The amendment also “broadens student access to mentorship, tutoring, and after-school activities or other informal learning opportunities designed to encourage interest and develop skills in” STEM subjects. Senate Amendment 2138 proposed by Senator Klobuchar, updates the ESEA to allow districts to “support the creation and enhancement of STEM-focused specialty schools” and STEM specific programs within schools.
Climate change amendments were met with a largely partisan divide during the Senate floor debate. Senator Markey (D-MA) introduced Senate Amendment 2176 to “establish a competitive grant program to help states integrate climate science into school curriculums.” The grant program would provide funds for schools to develop curriculums covering anthropogenic climate change as well as "actionable information to help students understand how to utilize new technologies and programs related to energy conservation, clean energy, and carbon pollution reduction". GSA sent a letter and a copy of GSA’s Position Statement on Climate Change to Senator Markey in support of his amendment, stating that GSA supports “efforts to convey accurate scientific information to better inform students and help them obtain the scientific and technical knowledge needed to succeed.” In contrast, Senator Wicker (R-MS) introduced Senate Amendment 2144 to provide schools resources to teach alternative views of the causes of climate change, focusing on topics such as "the natural causes and cycles of climate change" and "the uncertainties inherent in climate modeling.” Neither amendment made it onto the final bill, with Senator Markey’s amendment being voted down and Senator Wicker ultimately withdrawing his amendment from consideration.
Before the ESEA reauthorization becomes law, the Senate bill will have to be conferenced with the House bill, “The Student Success Act” (H.R. 5), which was passed on July 8th along an almost party line vote. Unlike the Senate bill, the House version does not contain a STEM focused section, although it does contain STEM programs and activities throughout the bill. It is unclear if a final conferenced version of the bill will contain the STEM section. It is also unclear if the President will sign the bill into law. The President has issued a veto threat against the House version and has expressed concerned over many non-STEM sections of the Senate bill. Of particular concern is the reduced role of the federal government in education under both bills. The Administration is concerned the House bill shifts authority of many ED programs from the federal government to local school districts and that Senate bill does not go far enough to ensure “that the Department of Education has the authority to implement the ESEA so that it works as intended to protect at-risk students and to provide accountability for taxpayer funds.”