Education Bill on the Move


Exposing students to a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curriculum is an essential part of making sure we are prepared for our future infrastructure needs, as it ensures that the next generation has civil engineers who can continue to be stewards of our nation’s infrastructure. Currently, the U.S. Congress is considering an education bill that would play a role in defining the STEM curriculum.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee last week approved, by an unexpected unanimous vote, the Every Child Achieves Act. The bill was a compromise worked out between Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Democrat Patty Murray (D-WA) and would reauthorize and amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), replacing the previous version best known as “No Child Left Behind.”

NCLB has proven to be controversial and since 2006 efforts by Congress to move to the next reauthorization have failed. The approval last week by the HELP Committee is the first positive move in some time. As approved the bill would continue to require the current level of testing in reading, math, and science, but it would allow states to set up their own accountability systems. Essentially the law continues to measure the academic progress of students, but restore to states the responsibility for deciding what to do about improving student achievement.

The compromise nature of the measure means that few policy stakeholder groups are fully satisfied with the bill in its current form. Consideration by the full Senate, which hasn’t yet been scheduled, is likely to spark some partisan fireworks over issues ranging from school vouchers to the level of the power the U.S. Department of Education should have when it comes to ensuring schools are improved for disadvantaged students.

To foster an appreciation and understanding of Stem at the K-12 level, one of ASCE’s 2015 Federal Priority Issues, based on a survey of members and adopted by the Board of Direction, is STEM education.

Toward that end, ASCE is a member of the STEM Education Coalition, a Coalition which is comprised of more than 500 business, professional and education organizations, with the goal of improving U.S. achievement in STEM subjects.  Since ESEA is the single largest federal legislation dealing with K-12 education, it is the Coalition goal to make sure that any reauthorization makes STEM education a priority.

ASCE and its allies in the STEM Coalition score a victory during the bill’s consideration when a Coalition-endorsed amendment sponsored by Senators Al Franken (D-MN), Mark Kirk (R-IL) was adopted by a 12-10 vote. The amendment provides each state with formula-based funding to support partnerships between local schools, businesses, universities, and non-profit organizations to improve student learning in STEM subjects. Each state would choose how to spend and prioritize these funds, which can support a wide range of STEM activities from in-depth teacher training, to engineering design competitions, to improving the diversity of the STEM workforce.

As mentioned above, the legislation faces hurdles ahead. Providing the measure can gain full Senate approval, there is still the matter of the House of Representatives. The House Education and Workforce Committee approved their version of ESEA reauthorization, H.R. 5, the Student Success Act on a strictly partisan vote. However, on the House floor, the bill stalled after conservative groups objected that the bill did not go far enough to cut programs and pull back federal involvement in education. Provided the full Senate can approve its version of the reauthorization, it is clear that the only way forward is for the House Republican leadership to accept Democratic support in order to move the bill to the White House.

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