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About the Upcoming House-Senate ESEA Conference Committee… and One from the Past

July 21, 2015

In July 2015, both House and Senate passed bills to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. The House version is known as the Student Success Act (SSA); the Senate version is called the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA) of 2015.

Both are an effort to reauthorize the last version of ESEA known as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001. NCLB was supposed to be reauthorized in 2007, but Congress would not touch it because it was a bust and the bipartisan honeymoon that gave America NCLB was over. So, NCLB remains on congressional life support to this day.

Since both House and Senate have passed versions of an ESEA reauthorization, they now must come together and sort out the issues that differ between their two versions so that they might present a single bill to both houses for a vote.

The committee chairs who presided over the House and Senate bills, Representative John Kline and Senator Lamar Alexander, respectively, get to decide who to invite to sit on the resulting House-Senate conference committee. There is no set number of individuals, and House and Senate do not have to have equal numbers on the committee because the two houses vote separately and act via majority vote. Still, there might be some friction between Democrats and Republicans within a house regarding the proportions of each party invited to sit on the committee.

The 2015 situation with the two ESEA reauthorizations is unusual in that what is being discussed in conference is not one bill that originated in one house of Congress and then was agreed to “as amended” by the other house. What we have here are two distinct bills. It seems that content of the two bills that does not differ is not up for amendment. For example, both SSA and ECAA preserve annual testing. So, it seems that the conferees will not be able to vote to rid the bills of annual testing.  However, on issues about which the two bills differ, such as Title I funding portability, conferees will be able to vote. (I am drawing my reasoning from two Library of Congress documents on House-Senate conference committees, here and here.)

But there is a lot of negotiation that will occur, not only between the two houses, but also between the houses and the White House.

To help me understand the process and the timeline, I investigated the NCLB House-Senate conference committee. (I realize that when this 2001 committee was in session, there was not yet an NCLB, but I will use this title for clarity’s sake.)

NCLB originated in the House as HR 1 for the 107th session of Congress (2001-02). On May 23, 2001, HR 1 passed in the House by a 384-45 vote.  On June 14, 2001, the Senate approved HR 1 “as amended” by a vote of 98-1. Since the Senate was in possession of HR 1, the Senate was in the official position to request the conference.

(Note: In the 2015 situation in which both House and Senate have versions of the ESEA reauthorization, both House and Senate could technically request conferences of each other. Nevertheless, they could have bypassed conference and just sent their respective bills to the other house, but given the massiveness of the ESEA reauthorization undertaking, that would have been poorly decided, no doubt.)

In 2001, the Senate voted on HR 1 “as amended,” and on July 19, 2001, the NCLB House-Senate conference committee met for the first time. That two-hour meeting is available on C-SPAN.

The second, one-hour meeting was held on August 01, 2001 and is also available on C-SPAN, as is this 14-minute, August 02, 2001, video of Senator Edward Kennedy, Representative John Boehner, and US Secretary of Education Rod Paige, following a meeting at the White House regarding the progression of the conference.

Note that the White House was also represented in the second, August 01, 2001, conference meeting.

Following the second meeting, the NCLB House-Senate conference committee adjourned until after Labor Day.

On December 13, 2001, the House voted 381-41 to pass NCLB. Five days later, on December 18, 2001, the Senate did the same by a vote of 87-10.

So, from the time that the Senate voted on HR1 “as amended”– June 2001– to the time that the resulting NCLB passed in the Senate– December 2001– six months passed.

Conferencing over ECAA and SSA will not be accomplished in short order. But thanks to C-SPAN, the public will be able to witness conference committee meetings.

Before I exit this post, let me offer readers a transcription of two of the speakers at the August 01, 2001, conference committee that produced test-and-punish NCLB, Senators Paul Wellstone (D-MN) and Chris Dodd (D-CT), as well as a bit of information that came from the mouth of Hillary Clinton (D-NY).

First, an excerpt from Wellstone:

Wellstone: … So, my first point is, if all we have is a national mandate that—I’ll be done in one minute—that every kid gets tested every year—age eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen—frankly, it’s breathtaking that the federal government is telling every school district that they have to do this. I’m amazed, frankly. But if we’re going to do that, we also better have a national mandate that says every child is going to have the same opportunity to succeed and do well on those tests, and frankly, I don’t see it. I do not see it in lieu of these tax cuts. I don’t see the money there, and I think if the money isn’t there, we’re just setting up a bunch of good teachers and good kids for failure.

And my second point is on the testing. I really hope– Senator Jeffords mention the Center—a lot of the people doing the analysis of testing—including all the people in the testing field—are all saying, “Don’t confuse accountability, testing, and standardized tests as being one and the same thing. Make sure you do it the right way. Make sure you have multiple measures. Otherwise, you’ll be making a big mistake.” And I think we really need to focus on that, and several of my colleagues said the other day, we need to focus on, on what they’re (tests) supposed to be used for, which is the diagnostic purposes….

Wellstone ended up voting against NCLB.

Here is a second candid excerpt, from Senator Dodd:

Dodd: And I think, in further recognition, that some of the things we’re going to be grappling with are not the legitimate subject matter of this conference. And that is, of course, we’re expecting teachers and schools to resolve problems of children who arrive with far more serious problems, and very disparate problems, and a lot of it based on the economics and circumstances they come from. …

Less than one half of one percent of the entire federal budget goes to elementary and secondary education, public education. I think that’s scandalous in the twenty-first century, as we begin it. It’s such a tiny fraction of our national wealth is contributed to something that dominates so much of our conversation, when we start talking about the success of our nation. So someday, I might hope that we would be a better partner. We’re not going to do it in this bill.

Dodd did decide to vote in favor of NCLB.

And now, about Hillary:

The same day as the second NCLB House-Senate conference committee meeting, on August 01, 2001, President Bush gave a speech to the National Urban League in which he promoted what would become NCLB, which was based upon a supposed test score “miracle” in Texas:

Accountability is an exercise in hope. When we raise academic standards, children raise their academic sights. When children are regularly tested, teachers know where and how to improve. When scores are known to parents, parents are empowered to push for change. When accountability for our schools is real, the results for our children are real.

I know this because I’ve seen it. In Texas, when we first introduced accountability measures, only 56 percent of African Americans fourth graders could pass our State reading test. Today, 83 percent of those students pass the tests. African American eighth graders in Texas are writing better than their peers in any other State.

Our Texas State tests require and measure progress amongst every minority group. And the great news is, we’ve gotten progress amongst every group in Texas. We saw supposedly hopeless schools make major progress. We saw students who had been written off find the self-esteem of real accomplishment. We saw how determined reform can confound the cynics and the skeptics.

Now, on that same day that Bush spoke of “confounding cynics and skeptics,” here is what Clinton mentions in the House-Senate conference meeting, and obviously in reference to Bush’s speech (minute 57:45):

…There are unintended consequences to even the best laid plans…. We are seeing increases in dropouts. You know, some of the most recent data from Texas– and if there is more recent that would contradict it, then I would like to see that– that there is a problem with dropouts. That’s true in every single state that has ever tried to do what Texas and others have tried to do.

Bush promoted NCLB based upon the Texas miracle, and Clinton acknowledged that the miracle did not curb the Texas dropout rate.

Looks like the hope of a NCLB miracle had fissures even before it was NCLB, and at least one such fissure revealed itself in committee. Still, Clinton voted in favor of NCLB.

So, here we are, in 2015. Another ESEA reauthorization, but not so much talk of any miracles. Even so, even on July 21,2015, there are opportunities to learn, and those who most need to learn are those who are about to sit on that House-Senate, ECAA-SSA conference committee.

Every member of the 2015 House-Senate conference committee for ECAA and SSA ought to be required to watch the three hours of C-SPAN 2001 House-Senate conference committee footage included in this post after signing the statement, “I acknowledge that NCLB was a colossal failure.”

Perhaps doing so might curb at least a few inane ESEA-reauth decisions.


capitol closeup


Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

She also has a second book, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?, newly published on June 12, 2015.

both books


  1. Reblogged this on stopcommoncorenys.

  2. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    Excellent history lesson. It is not over til it is over, and then the great experiment begins all over with the big churn at the state level and whatever is left for the discretion of the USDE.

  3. Christine Langhoff permalink

    Paul Wellstone was perhaps one of the best champions of kids living in poverty we had. I used to have these words of his posted in my classroom:

    “I dare to imagine a country where every child I hold in my hands, are all God’s children, regardless of the color of their skin, regardless of whether they’re boy or girl, regardless of religion, regardless of rich or poor, that every child I hold in my hands, will have the same chance to reach her full potential or his full potential. That is the goodness of our country. That is the essence of the American dream.”

  4. Hello Mercedes,

    Thank you for your amazingly thorough, thoughtful and fair-minded writing. I would like to ask you a couple questions about the ECAA/SSA, which will merge into law soon, it appears. I don’t know if you have time to answer, seeing that your summer project is another book! (By the way, I love “Chronicle of Echoes,” and have taken it to school to educate colleagues.)

    I have a question specifically about the SMART Act, which is, I believe, a little addendum to the Senate’s ECAA. Sherrod Brown, Democratic senator from my state of Ohio, actually spoke at my high school in support of this little Act. I’m a big fan of Sherrod Brown. But my guess is that this addendum was merely a way for Brown and others to appease parent anger about excessive testing. On his website, Brown describes his SMART bill as “legislation that would help states ensure statewide and local assessments are reliable and timely, while eliminating outdated or duplicative tests.” Which sounds to me like a whole lot of nothing.

    Do you know about the SMART Act, its usefulness, and its likelihood of being in the final version?

    Thank you very much!

    Chris Cotton

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