May 18, 2011 at 5:21 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Key vote on LGBT student bill could come in June

Rep. Jared Polis said he expects a Senate committee to vote on SNDA in June. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A crucial vote on a non-discrimination measure for LGBT students could take place next month when a key Senate committee takes up education reform legislation.

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a gay lawmaker who works on education issues, said Monday the Senate panel with jurisdiction over education reform is set to consider the Elementary & Secondary Education Act reauthorization in June.

“It’s a very complex area of law, and it’ll begin with Senate markups in June as Chairman [Tom] Harkin has indicated he plans to hold,” Polis said during a conference call hosted by the Center for American Progress.

Anti-bullying advocates have been pushing for the inclusion of SNDA, which Polis sponsors in the House, as part of larger education reform. SNDA prohibits public schools and school programs from discriminating against LGBT students.

Polis predicted Harkin’s initial mark for Elementary & Secondary Education Act reauthorization wouldn’t contain the pro-LGBT measures and suggested a vote would take place in committee to include SNDA in the larger bill.

“Although we don’t expect to see SNDA in the chairman’s mark of the initial bill, we are optimistic we can amend the ESEA because all but one of the Democrats on the committee are co-sponsors of the Student Non-Discrimination Act,” Polis said.

In the Senate, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) sponsors SNDA. He’s a member of the Senate HELP committee, so any amendment to include this measure as part of Elementary & Secondary Education Act reauthorization would likely come from him.

As of last week, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) was the sole Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee who wasn’t a co-sponsor of SNDA.

But Stephanie Allen, a Hagan spokesperson, said her boss this week signed on as co-sponsor for the student non-discrimination bill.

Hagan’s co-sponsorship means Democrats on the HELP committee are unanimous in their support for SNDA. Additionally, her support brings the total number of SNDA supporters on the panel to 12, the majority needed for passage in committee.

Despite Polis’ remarks, Capitol Hill observers said the plan for proceeding in the Senate with education reform and SNDA haven’t yet been settled.

Shawn Gaylord, director of public policy for Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, said he’s also heard that Harkin wants to proceed with education reform in June, but plans for SNDA inclusion haven’t yet been settled.

“You hear conflicting opinions on how that’s going to move forward,” Gaylord said. “I would imagine in the next two weeks, we’ll learn a little more about what the real strategy is, but at the moment I still think there’s viewpoints about what’s happening.”

Spokespersons for Democratic senators wouldn’t confirm that plans are in place to amend the Elementary & Secondary Education Act reauthorization to include SNDA during a markup in June.

Justine Sessions, a HELP committee spokesperson, was mum on the components that would be included in education reform as she acknowledged the committee is working on crafting a bi-partisan package.

“We are continuing to work to craft a comprehensive, bipartisan bill to reauthorize ESEA, and are not commenting on any specific elements of the legislation,” Sessions said.

Alexandra Fetissoff, a Franken spokesperson, said SNDA is a “big priority” for her boss, but plans for the legislation remain unclear.

“Right now the status of the bill is in flux and we’re still working very hard to get it included,” Fetissoff said. “As of today, every Democratic member of the HELP committee is a cosponsor of SNDA, which demonstrates its strong support in the committee. Beyond that we can’t comment on ongoing negotiations.”

Whether a vote on an amendment would also take place during the committee markup to include the Safe Schools Improvement Act, another anti-bullying bill, remains unclear.

In the Senate, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) sponsors SSIA which, among other things, would require public schools to establish codes of conduct explicitly prohibiting bullying and harassment.

Larry Smar, a Casey spokesperson, said plans to pursue SSIA in education reform are similarly not yet pinned down at this point.

“We don’t yet know what will be in the base bill,” Smar said. “Sen. Casey has urged Senator Harkin to include SSIA in the ESEA reauthorization. Since so much is unknown at this point I can’t get into exact strategy.”

SSIA doesn’t enjoy the same level of support in the HELP committee as SNDA, so adoption of the Casey bill as part of education reform may be more challenging.

Three Democrats on the panel aren’t co-sponsors of SSIA: Sens. Hagan, Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).

Jude McCartin, a Bingaman spokesperson, said his boss sometimes supports bills even though he doesn’t co-sponsor them.

“Sen. Bingaman supports [and] hopes the reauthorization of ESEA contains strong anti-bullying [and] non-discrimination provisions, though at this point in the negotiations it is unclear what those might be,” McCartin said.

Adam Bozzi, a Bennet spokesperson, said his boss believes that SNDA is the best way to end anti-gay harassment of students.

“Sen. Bennet supports addressing bullying in our schools, particularly as it relates to GLBT students,” Bozzi said. “He believes the best approaches include the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which he has co-sponsored in the Senate.”

Given that Hagan, Bingaman and Bennett are co-sponsors for SNDA and voted in favor of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal last year, their support for the SSIA is likely should the measure come up in committee.

Additionally, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) was an original co-sponsor for SSIA, so his affirmative vote could make up for any single Democrat that doesn’t support the measure. Additionally, Kirk’s co-sponsorship may encourage other GOP members of the panel to vote in favor of the bill.

The extent to which the White House will lobby for passage of an LGBT-inclusive ESEA reauthorization package also remains to be seen.

The White House hasn’t yet enumerated support for either the SNDA or the SSIA, although it has called for safer schools as part of education reform without specifically mentioning anti-LGBT bullying.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said the administration will work with Congress to produce education reform legislation that provides protections against harassment.

“When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is being considered, we look forward to working with Congress to ensure that all students are safe and healthy and can learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying and harassment,” Inouye said.

Gaylord said the White House has expressed support for the anti-bullying policy, but hasn’t been visible in working to pass LGBT-inclusive education reform.

“What they might be doing behind the scenes, I don’t know,” Gaylord said. “I suspect one possibility may be that they’re waiting for stronger signals that this is really moving forward and, again, that could all become clear in the next week or two because it does seem like there’s some new activity happening.”

But the biggest challenge in passing LGBT-inclusive education reform legislation is ensuring that the enumerated protections meet majority approval in the Republican-controlled House.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chair of the House Committee on Education & the Workforce, has said he envisions education reform as a series of smaller bills as opposed to one larger piece of reform legislation.

Last week, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) introduced the first of these bills: the Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act. The bill proposes to cut 43 education programs, many of which were already defunded in the final FY-2011 budget agreement signed into law by President Obama.

Alexandra Sollberger, a spokesperson for the House Committee on Education & the Workforce, was non-committal in response to an inquiry on whether Kline would be open to pro-LGBT elements in education reform.

“We are holding ongoing discussions with minority committee staff on the content of these bills,” Sollberger said.

But Sollberger said any provision dealing with safe schools would come up last in Kline’s plan for education reform legislation.

“The education reform bills will each address a different theme, such as flexibility, teachers, and accountability,” she said. “Any efforts to address safe school issues will likely come into play with the accountability legislation, which is likely to be the last piece of the puzzle.”

Polis said SNDA advocates in the House will work to build the number of co-sponsors for the legislation to enhance its chances for passage as part of education reform.

“Our work in the meantime … is to simply increase the number of sponsors and show that this piece of legislation will have among the top number of sponsors and supporters than any other legislation for ESEA,” Polis said.

As of deadline, the legislation has 132 co-sponsors — including two Republicans — which is more than the bill had in the last Congress when Democrats were in control of the House.

Another pending bill that would help LGBT students is the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, which would require colleges to establish policies against harassment.

Polis said the legislation is focused on higher education so wouldn’t be part of Elementary & Secondary Act reauthorization.

“It wouldn’t be included in ESEA,” Polis said. “That’s just the K-12 grade piece, so it would be a different area of federal law.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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