The Educational Opportunities Act (3-15-00)

Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the main legislation for K-12 education programs in the Department of Education, is a hot topic in the 106th Congress.  Partially in response to strong constituent demand for change, members of Congress see education reform as a major election-year issue.  As the reauthorization process moves ahead, Congress is discussing the appropriate role and scope of federal control over education, a highly partisan debate. Differences of opinion in the federal government's role in education have produced several versions of reauthorization legislation, but these different bills will have to be incorporated into a single bill later in the legislative process.  Meanwhile, the House and Senate will continue to hold hearings and debate the various bills.

Three things are complicating the reauthorization process for ESEA.  First, the House and Senate decided to approach it in very different ways.  The House of Representatives is reauthorizing each titles of the act as a separate bill.  Second, the full House Education and the Workforce Committee is working on the reauthorization, instead of the standard system in which the subcommittee holds hearings and mark-up before passing it to the full committee for consideration.  And third, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has decided to reauthorize ESEA as a single bill.  These different styles and different versions of the bill will affect the timetable for reauthorization. Background and information about the reauthorization process is available on the AGI Update on Science Education Policy webpage.

On January 19, 1999, Senator James Jeffords (R-VT) introduced S. 2, the Educational Opportunities Act.  The bill  was referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which Jeffords chairs.  S. 2 in its original state would extend the programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) through the fiscal year 2004 by focusing federal reform on increasing parent involvement, improving teacher preparedness, providing safe schools, assuring that students are the primary beneficiaries of federal education spending, and focusing instruction on basic academics and fundamental skills.  The version of the bill introduced did not contain specific information on restructuring or reauthorizing individual programs and titles under ESEA.

Once Jeffords introduced S. 2, he worked with several of the original cosponsors -- Paul Coverdell (R-GA), Trent Lott (R-MS), Connie Mack (R-FL), John McCain (R-AZ), Judd Gregg (R-NH), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) -- to craft the specific language for the bill.  In October 1999, Jeffords released the first discussion draft of the legislation.

The key program of interest to the geosciences in the ESEA reauthorization process are the Eisenhower Professional Development programs, which directs federal funds specifically to math and science educators.  Under the current law, the professional development programs receive around $250 million, with some additional funds for the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse.    In Jeffords's first discussion draft of the legislation, the current funding level and formula for local and state education agency allocations were maintained.  It included principals and superintendents as eligible for professional development when appropriate and required that local education agencies demonstrate to the states that the professional development activities maintain a high degree of excellence.  The National Science Teacher Association (NSTA) released a summary of Jeffords discussion draft in a Legislative Update on October 19, 1999.

In January 2000, when Congress reconvened for the second session, Jeffords released a second discussion, which is currently the subject of a series of Senate HELP Committee business meeting.  The latest draft reverses this positive trend for science and math professional development. This draft would not only remove the set aside for Eisenhower but also would allow funds from the program to be converted into block grants that could be used for other purposes.  According to an alert from NSTA the new draft "allows for the Eisenhower program to be included into a block grant; although [local education areas] LEAs are 'required' to spend funds for professional development, there is no language authorizing a specific percentage or dollar amount that must be spent on teacher training. Consequently, administrators could spend $1 of these funds for professional development and satisfy the bill's requirement."  In response to the new language, AGI sent out a Congressional Action Alert on February 23, 2000 to encourage geoscientists to contact their members of Congress in support for the Eisenhower programs and math and science education.  The Senate HELP Committee has made a summary of the legislation as well as the complete text available on its website.

On March 1, 2000, the Senate HELP Committee began marking up the second draft version of S. 2, but due to a floor vote actual work on the legislation was postponed to the following week.  Little progress was made at the first meeting as the members used the time to sing the praises of their party's ESEA reauthorization bill and bash the opposing party legislation.  It is expected that over 70 amendments will be offered in these meetings and work will be extremely partisan.  On Tuesday, March 7th, the Committee passed a provision that would allow states to consolidate nearly all of their federal funds into block grants, removing specific requirements such as the language for the Eisenhower math and science professional development.  Ranking Member Edward Kennedy (D-MA) introduced an amendment to the legislation that would have provided $2 billion for teacher improvement and professional development, especially for science and math educators.  The Kennedy amendment, along with the majority of other Democrat supported amendments, was not approved.  Many of the approved amendments to S. 2 are similar to language and provisions included in House ESEA reauthorization bills -- the Student Results Act (H.R. 2), the Teacher Empowerment Act (H.R. 1995), and the Straight A's Act (H.R. 2300).

On March 9th, the HELP Committee passed S. 2 favorably out of committee on a party-line (10-8) vote.  NSTA released a Legislative Update summarizing the final Committee actions and amendments.  In the end, the language regarding math and science education within the bill is completely lacking but does call for the continuation of the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education and to expand the scope of the Clearinghouse.   Also, the bill would authorize a pilot program that would permit 15 states to block grant nearly all federal funds without having to meet the specific program regulations.  Senator Jeffords said of S. 2, "We've passed a strong elementary and secondary education bill that provides local communities greater flexibility to meet their ever-changing needs while strengthening accountability for academic performance.  I trust local parents and educators to know what's best for their children."  In response to the favorable report out of the HELP Committee, Secretary of Education Richard Riley released a statement urging the President to veto the bill.  Senate floor debate on S. 2 is expected in early April.

Sources:   National Science Teachers Association website, Department of Education website, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee website, Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education, CQ Daily Monitor, and Library of Congress Thomas website.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by Margaret Baker, AGI Government Affairs

Posted March 15, 2000

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