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Native American elder rights, students with disabilities among ESEA highlights

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Thursday, October 20, 2011 at 2:11 pm

During day two of the HELP committee markup to approve the major K-12 education law meant to replace No Child Left Behind, senators proposed various amendments that addressed teacher requirements for Native American school lessons, testing standards for students with disabilities, classroom apprenticeship programs among others. The pace of the sessions have sped up, as well, following an agreement between Sen. Rand Paul and the committee’s leadership.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced an amendment slightly tweaking the language of the Harkin-Enzi bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on the federal government’s expectations for teachers. Her focus was on Native American, Hawaiian, and other indigenous communities that have a rich oral history but are kept out of the classroom anyway.

“These Native languages are dying out at astonishing rates,” Murkowski stressed, and when the  languages die out, she says, cultures follow with it.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) was uncomfortable with the amendment since it lured the Senate down, “a slippery slope on this high quality teacher thing,” he said. Sen. Murkowski elaborated, making clear her amendment doesn’t affect teacher standards nor does it require Native American history and culture in the curriculum.

“It doesn’t mandate teaching of culture,” she said. “It shows respect for our first peoples and for our elders who want to carry on that language… for the young people.” Murkowski said.

She explained there are various restrictions holding back an indigenous child from receiving formal access to his or her native language and cultural expressions like dance and music. For one, federal regulations view indigenous languages as foreign, something she thought was absurd. More importantly, tribal elders who have the greatest insight into their culture’s processions “is not going to get out to get a teacher certification,” Murkowski added.

Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) were supportive of the Alaskan senator’s effort to strip down the regulations, and the amendment ultimately passed.

Although Democrats are often accused of increased accountability and regulation, on specialized tests for students with disabilities, the tables turned between Sen. Harkin and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). The Georgia senator, despite vehement protest from disabilities groups, brought up an amendment that would have expanded alternative testing for students with disabilities. Sen. Harkin, who has a strong history of supporting the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and whose brother was deaf, argued Isakson’s amendment amounted to a type of segregation against students with disabilities.

The Georgia senator made it clear he took umbrage to that characterization, but spoke with defeence of Sen. Harkin’s experience in the field. Ultimately, Sen. Harkin said, “special education means students needs additional tools to learn” as opposed to different ones. He added current law tests 1 percent of students with disabilities, with was based on academic surveys that found .5 percent of students need them. Isakson’s proposal would expand the testing pool to two percent, something Harkin said was not a “rational” choice given limited testing supporting the move and would lower expectations for more students.

Isakson’s amendment did not pass.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who surprised many by using an arcane procedural rule limiting committee discussion while the Senate was in session, agreed to withdraw his objection after striking a deal with chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). The arrangement allows the markup to proceed normally, while Sen. Paul will have a chance to voice his frustration during a full hearing on the bill before it goes to the Senate floor for a vote.

Sen. Paul also announced he is removing all but 7 of his submitted 75 amendments to speed the markup session along. The Kentucky junior senator admitted to submitting the amendments to slow down the HELP committee’s discussion of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s overhaul. Sens. Harkin and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) co-authored the bill.

Of the amendments he proposed, one was to fully repeal No Child Left Behind. Though he admitted it was a mostly symbolic gesture, he argued it was important for the record to note who stood by complete repeal of the law. The Harkin-Enzi bill constitutes as an overhaul of NCLB already.

Other highlights include Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) successfully introducing a bill that would monitor the enrollment of eighth graders to better understand how many of them graduate from high school. Dropout rates are determined by comparing the amount of ninth graders enrolled to how many graduated high school.

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