Senate Education Bill Moves to Floor with Juvenile Justice, Child Welfare Provisions

An education bill that moved through the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on party lines today would require school systems to coordinate with child welfare systems and inform area parents about recent school discipline practices.

The “Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013,” submitted by Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), would rewrite much of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA).

The bill includes a section (1501) on “Educational Stability of Children in Foster Care,” which requires state education agencies to collaborate with child welfare agencies to provide certain assurances to children who are in foster care.

The section requires that foster youth are kept in their school of origin for at least the remainder of the school year, unless it is not in the best interests of the child. State education agencies would have a year after the bill’s passage to figure out a plan for transporting foster youths back to their schools of origin.

In the event that a foster youth does change schools, the bill mandates the agencies create a system for the immediate transfer of all academic and health records to the new school. New schools must accept credits for any coursework a foster youth completed at a previous school.

The stability section passed as an amendment by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to a previous Harkin education bill passed by the committee in 2011.

The Strengthening America’s Schools Act” would also require local education agencies to develop an “equity report card” for each school, which among other things would require disclosure of information about school discipline.

Specifically, the bill requires the report card to include information about “in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement, school-based arrests, and disciplinary transfers” to other schools.

“There are lots of kids who need to get suspended or expelled,” said Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.), who was responsible for insertion of the language into the legislation.

But those options are being used too frequently for “routine violations of school policy,” he said, and the problem is “particularly bad for African-American and Hispanic students.”

“If we think that is not happening, that kids of color are not being disciplined at higher rates than….white kids, you’re fooling yourself,” Harkin said. “We know that. We need to put some sunshine on this.”

Harkin’s bill, S. 1094, passed entirely on party lines, with hope on both sides of the aisle that differences could be negotiated on the Senate floor. Ranking Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander said he expected the House to pass its own education re-write, and wanted a floor-negotiated bill to conference with the House version.

“There are obviously differences on proper policy,” said Harkin. “That’s what makes…for a vibrant democracy.”

Though cordial in tone, the two-day markup highlighted significant disagreements between the two parties about the role of the Department of Education in how states should address their lowest-performing schools.

Sen. Alexander repeatedly remarked that Harkin’s bill was tantamount to the creation of a “national school board,” with mandated standards and reporting requirements that created a “Mother-May-I?” relationship between the federal agency and states.

Harkin said a number of times that nothing about the bill amounted to a mandate, and that any state was free to ignore it and forgo the federal funding tied to ESEA.

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