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From School Security to Opting Out: 7 Interesting Pending Amendments to the Senate Education Spending Bill

Senators, with little fanfare and largely overshadowed by outside political developments, used a once-in-a-decade consideration of an Education Department spending bill to raise a collection of education policy proposals.

Bipartisan movement on spending bills in the Senate has been perhaps the one example of cooperation in a highly politicized Capitol that has for years relied on stopgap funding measures to keep the federal government running.

By the end of the day Tuesday, senators had proposed more than 200 amendments to the bill, which would spend $71.4 billion at the Education Department. About two dozen are related to education. The bill also funds the Labor and Health and Human Services departments and is tied to the Defense Department’s annual funding bill.

In the House, which is on recess through Labor Day, the Appropriations Committee has approved that chamber’s bill, but it has not yet come to the floor. Current funding expires Sept. 30.

Not all, or even most, of the amendments filed to the bill will be considered. Senate Republican leaders said final passage of the bill is likely Thursday.

Here are seven interesting education amendments:

1 School security 

Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, offered an amendment that would permit schools to use their Title IV funds — a catchall program created in the Every Student Succeeds Act — “for the purpose of installing infrastructure, and implementing technology or other measures, that strengthen security on school premises.” It lists metal detectors, systems to notify law enforcement, and school resource officers as among the broad allowable uses of the funding.

Congress earlier this year poured money into the Title IV programs in the wake of the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, to be used for things like mental health training, bullying prevention, and school counselors.

Education savings accounts

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, and Sen. Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, proposed expanding the allowable uses of Coverdell savings accounts, which let money grow tax-free. Currently limited to K-12 and college expenses, Klobuchar’s and Sasse’s amendment would allow the accounts to be used for job training and adult education expenses, permit adults up to age 70 to be beneficiaries of the accounts, and increase contribution limits for older account holders.

“We’re entering an era of massive economic disruption and job change — Americans need to become lifelong learners. The [legislation] will help American workers adapt to the reality of the new workforce by helping them complete new skills development and retraining programs,” Sasse said in a release when he and Klobuchar introduced a similar proposal as a stand-alone bill.

3 School facilities

Sen. Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, proposed an amendment that would require the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan federal watchdog, to study the state of America’s public school facilities “and their adequacy to support a 21st century education.”

The report, which would be due to congressional education committees in 18 months, would have to look at 10 specific areas, including plumbing, heating and air conditioning, and environmental concerns like asbestos, lead, and mold.

News coverage this year has highlighted children’s exposure to asbestos and lead in Philadelphia, and a 2017 investigation by The 74 found that 11 of the country’s biggest school districts lacked air conditioning in some schools.

4 Discipline policies

Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, offered an amendment that would bar states and school districts from implementing a discipline policy that discourages schools from reporting any disciplinary action to law enforcement agencies or that discourages law enforcement from arresting anyone for a variety of offenses, including “acts of violence related to expulsion from school.”

The amendment takes aim at an Obama-era guidance document that encouraged schools to adopt policies scaling back exclusionary discipline practices, eliminate racial disparities in discipline outcomes, and reduce reliance on law enforcement. Rubio and other Republicans have questioned whether discipline policies in Broward County, Florida, led to authorities overlooking the accused Parkland shooter, who had been expelled. Federal officials have said the issues aren’t related.

Conservatives have long criticized the Obama-era policy as an inappropriate federal intrusion into local decisions that makes schools less safe, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is considering whether to overturn it.

5 Test participation

A proposal from Sen. Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, would bar the Education Department from requiring states to test 95 percent of students overall, or 95 percent of any subgroup, as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Civil rights groups say allowing broad opt-outs of testing could hide achievement gaps; conservatives, including Lee, say it’s a decision left to parents.

A growing number of students in Utah have opted out of state tests: 5.9 percent in 2017, versus 3.1 percent in 2015, spurring an audit by the state school board, local news reported.

Lee offered a similar proposal in 2015 when the Senate was debating the bill that became ESSA. The law requires states to use test participation rates in its school ratings, but it also says the rule doesn’t supersede state or local laws that allow parents to opt out of exams.

6 Abstinence-only sex ed

A group of Democratic senators, led by Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, filed an amendment to eliminate $35 million in grants at the Department of Health and Human Services set aside for abstinence-only sex ed and instead use it for “medically accurate and complete age, developmentally, and culturally-appropriate information on how to access sexual health services,” along with other uses, like promoting better support for school-age parents.

7 School counselors

Sen. Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, offered an amendment that would allow up to $10 million to be used for a “demonstration program to test and evaluate innovative partnerships” between colleges and high-needs states and school districts to train more school counselors and other mental health professionals.

The student-to-counselor ratio in 2014-15, the most recent data available, was 482 to 1, nearly double the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of 250 to 1, the group said.

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