Democrats plan to introduce two anti-bullying amendments when a major education reform proposal hits the Senate floor later this year - but the measures could put bipartisan support for the bill in serious jeopardy.
Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota is expected to offer the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA), which would make it a federal crime to bully lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students. Under the law, school districts could lose federal funding or face lawsuits if they ignore harassment.
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania plans to propose the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA), mandating that schools adopt broad anti-bullying policies and issue regular reports to Congress and the Department of Education on the number and types of harassment cases each year.
Republicans have concerns with both bills and fear heavy-handed federal interference over school policy and potential lawsuits brought by students and their families or the federal government, draining district budgets at a time when they’re already stretched to the breaking point. Many in the GOP have expressed support for the goals of both measures, but have taken issue with the details.
Mr. Franken and Mr. Casey withdrew their amendments during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee markup of the education reform package last week amid belief that they would erode Republican support, which is already in short supply, for the plan.
Mr. Casey “made the difficult decision to withdraw his amendment before it came up for a vote. He felt he could not jeopardize the bipartisan committee vote to reform No Child Left Behind,” Casey spokeswoman April Mellody said Tuesday.
Mr. Casey’s fears are well-founded, and both measures could represent a poison pill for Republicans skeptical of the legislation, drafted by HELP Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican.
Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican and one of only three HELP Committee Republicans currently backing the bill, supports the Safe Schools Act but has reservations about the SNDA, which boasts more than 20 Democratic co-sponsors.
Kirk spokeswoman Kate Dickens said Tuesday the Illinois senator will emphasize “the need to keep federal education dollars in the schools and out of legal battles,” and cannot support the bill unless it includes safeguards to ensure schools aren’t bombarded with lawsuits.
But Mr. Franken and other Democrats believe the party must stick to its guns, even if it ends up costing Republican votes on the Senate floor.
“My understanding is that some members think that if we considered [the SNDA] … the whole No Child Left Behind reform would lose bipartisan support,” Mr. Franken said during last week’s markup. “But I want to be crystal clear. We need to pass it. We need to vote on it. Kids who are scared and have nowhere else to turn need our help.”
Despite the rift, many in the LGBT community support tethering Mr. Franken’s measure to the broader proposal and believe it is a necessary component to any school reform plan.
“The idea has always been that [education reform] provided the best vehicle for it. It’s when everybody is paying attention to education issues,” Shawn Gaylord, director of public policy for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, said Tuesday. “But there are a lot of ways this could go.”
One possible outcome is that the Democrat-controlled Senate pushes through the NCLB overhaul with both amendments, only to face stiff opposition in the Republican-led House, which is pushing its own education reform package. Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican, who is chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and architect of the House plan, strongly supports increased protection for the most vulnerable students, but remains skeptical of the Democratic approach.
“Forty-seven states already have laws on the books that address bullying and harassment in schools. Chairman Kline is concerned that imposing additional federal solutions could undermine those important local efforts,” a Kline spokeswoman told The Washington Times on Tuesday.
Without Mr. Kline’s support, any education bill containing either amendment is likely dead on arrival in the House.