ESEA Reauthorization – Conference Committee Coming

Posted by Ms. Kate O. McClanahan, Sep 14, 2015 0 comments

August recess, August district work period, August vacation. Whichever phrase you might prefer, Congress is now back in session. That means a return to a tremendous amount of pending work, including the start of a formal conference committee to attempt to write a final bill to reauthorize the long expired Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

You might be thinking, conference committee? That sounds like Schoolhouse Rock! And you might rightfully be wondering, what is actually going to happen, and what can you do? First, keep reading blogs on ARTSBlog this week, where experts each day (who’ve been following this work for years, even decades) will offer their opinions and insights on what may actually happen and what it means for arts education.

Structurally, here’s what’s coming next:

Right before Congress adjourned, the leaders of the House and Senate education committees met to discuss next steps. (Read their statement from this meeting here.) This organizational meeting is a key marker. It shows the commitment of the “Big 4,” an affectionate term for the four leaders of the two committees, to not leave this bill behind (pardon the pun!) 

They each expressed confidence:*

  • House Chairman Rep. John Kline (R-MN): “…I am confident we will be able to craft a bicameral education bill…”House Chairman Kline (R-MN) during markup of H.R. 5, the Student Success Act, earlier this spring. He is expected to chair the conference committee.
  • Senate Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN): “Fifty million children and 3.5 million teachers deserve to get a result.”
  • Senate Ranking Member Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA): “…I am hopeful that we can build on this bipartisan foundation to take the final steps to get this bill to the president’s desk.”
  • House Ranking Member Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA): “I am confident that working together, we will produce a comprehensive reauthorization…”

*Statements heavily truncated. The omitted pieces reflect substantial policy differences, which have the continued potential to prevent any final agreement from being reached.

The formal “naming of conferees;” i.e., announcing the rest of the members who will serve on this conference committee, should happen any day now, or maybe just before this post went live...

It is expected that the entirety of the Senate committee will be named, under a prevailing theory that it is difficult to exclude a senator who wishes to be included. Fortunately, the Senate committee demonstrated its impressive ability to work together, as seen during the lengthy markups and the kind, real, and substantial debate they undertook. Although there may have been some tongue-in-cheek references to “my good friend”** thrown in, it was refreshingly productive work, and perhaps even more impressive since the committee spans the full political spectrum, from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT); from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS). We aren’t talking about members who already agree with each other! 

**Tune in to the House floor, and you might hear this term frequently in condescending debate, where it means they are not good friends in the slightest. And, if you are called a “gentleman” or a “gentlelady,” you might be in real trouble on your relationship meter!

On the House side, it is expected that the entirety of the committee won’t be on the conference, given its size. It would make the work too unwieldly. Some sort of ratio is likely to be employed, giving the majority more members than the minority. (Another example of how elections matter!)

At the end of the day, a majority of the members on the conference committee will need to sign off on whatever agreement might come to pass in order for it to come before the House and Senate for an up or down vote. The President would then need to sign it.

So, when is all of this likely to happen?

The most accurate answer is it depends, but the window is now. It depends because no one can predict the future, even if they are a time traveler. Congress is now primarily focused on trying to keep the government open (federal funding runs out at the end of this month, if Congress doesn’t pass appropriations.) Additional looming deadlines are ahead (like the expiration of highway authority in October and the U.S. Treasury exhausting emergency measures to stay under the debt limit likely before the end of the year). Defaults and shutdowns steal attention. But you can help ensure the Big 4’s confidence can be realized. Join together to take advantage of the momentum and groundwork already laid and encourage conferees to support arts-friendly provisions in the final bill by signing this petition that asks conferees to include key provisions that help ensure that every child can receive a complete education that includes the arts. Want more info? Read this list of arts-friendly provisions that could be included in a final bill.

Working conference committees are rare. By that I mean that members of Congress and their staff physically get together to discuss and negotiate which provisions to assemble into a final bill. It can be grueling work. Snacks are usually necessary. Line by line, the committee will work to iron-out differences between the House- and Senate-passed bills to arrive at a final, negotiated bill. All indications point to this actually happening; the petition is a key tool, showing line by line ways the arts can be supported in K-12 education. Given what’s at stake (and not to mention the number of no-nonsense former Governors likely serving on this conference committee), hopes are high. A finish line has never been closer, or shall we say, graduation!


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