March 23, 2011 at 4:54 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Advocates push Obama on education reform

President Obama addresses attendees at anti-bullying conference (Blade photo by Michael Key).

LGBT rights supporters are pushing for the inclusion of student anti-bullying and non-discrimination measures as part of upcoming education reform legislation as observers say bipartisan support and pressure from the White House are needed to ensure they’re included in any larger vehicle that makes it to President Obama’s desk.

Obama has identified reauthorization of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act, updated during the Bush administration as No Child Left Behind, during his State of the Union address as among his priorities for the 112th Congress and has been touring the country with education leaders — including Education Secretary Arne Duncan — to make the case for education reform.

Last week during a speech before Kenmore Middle School students in Arlington, Va., Obama noted support for updating No Child Left Behind in Congress and called on lawmakers to send him education reform legislation before the next school year begins in the fall.

“I am proud of the commitment by Democrats and Republicans in Congress to fix No Child Left Behind, to make this reform a reality — because they recognize education is an area where we can’t afford to drag our feet,” Obama said. “As Arne says, our kids only get one shot at an education, and we’ve got to get it right.”

Whether the 112th Congress can reauthorize No Child Left Behind remains in question as the leaders in the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate differ on what reform should look like. Even if passage can happen, many political observers have said Obama’s goal of passing education reform by end of summer is unrealistic.

Components of education reform that Obama has enumerated support for include implementing an accountability system that shares responsibility for improvement and rewards excellence; having a flexible system that empowers school administrators and teachers; and having a system that targets resources to persistently low-performing schools and ensures the most effective teachers serve students most in need.

But LGBT rights supporters are looking to No Child Left Behind reauthorization as as a vehicle to pass various bills pending before Congress that aim to combat bullying and discrimination against LGBT students.

In the Senate, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) sponsors the Safe Schools Improvement Act, an anti-bullying measure, which, among other things, would require public schools to establish codes of conduct explicitly prohibiting bullying and harassment. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) is expected to introduce companion legislation in the House.

Similar legislation that aims to help LGBT students is the Student Non-Discrimination Act. Introduced by gay lawmaker Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) in the House and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) in the Senate, the legislation prohibits public schools and school programs from discriminating against LGBT students.

Additionally, the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act — sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in the Senate and Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) in the House — would require colleges to establish policies against harassment.

The bill is named after a Rutgers University student who leaped off the George Washington Bridge in September after a video was posted online of him reportedly having a sexual encounter with another man in his dorm room. However, this legislation has a lower profile than either the Safe Schools Improvement Act or the Student Non-Discrimination Act.

LGBT advocates working to advance these measures say talks are already taking place on Capitol Hill to include them as part of No Child Left Behind reauthorization as discussions begin over passage of the larger vehicle.

Shawn Gaylord, director of public policy for Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, confirmed talks have already started on including pro-LGBT measures as part of education reform.

“We and other groups have been talking to committee staff for quite a while about that possibility,” Gaylord said. “Throughout this Congress, we’ve been talking to committee staff and making sure they were aware of our hope of getting legislation included in ESEA reauthorization.”

Gaylord said he’s “hopeful” that the pro-LGBT measures will be integrated as part of No Child Left Behind reauthorization. In 2007, when Congress was undertaking a previous attempt to enact education reform, Gaylord said nearly the entire Safe Schools Improvement Act was included in the discussion drafts of Elementary & Secondary Act reauthorization.

“So there’s precedent for it,” Gaylord said. “To deal with issues of bullying or discrimination — it’s not as if that’s not what ESEA reauthorization would cover.”

A Republican strategist familiar with education reform, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it’s too early to tell whether education reform — LGBT-inclusive or otherwise — can make it to the president’s desk during this Congress, but expressed optimism about the effort.

“The good thing is that, obviously, Republicans and Democrats haven’t been agreeing on too much lately, but the one area where folks think there is a real chance for them to come to agreement is on education and what to do with No Child Left Behind reauthorization,” the strategist said. “If anything can get bipartisan support and get done this year, it’s probably that.”

With Republicans in control of the House and a Democratic majority in the Senate, observers maintain that bipartisan agreement on inclusion of the pro-LGBT measures is necessary for them to stay on as a component of the larger bill.

One LGBT rights advocate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said staffers on the Senate HELP Committee have indicated that passage of No Child Left Behind reauthorization with LGBT inclusion will depend on support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“I would say that they are hopeful, but realistic that the likelihood is almost entirely dependent on a bipartisan effort,” the source said.

A spokesperson for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) deferred comment on the issue to the House Education & Workforce Committee, which didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment.

On the Senate side, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, is a co-sponsor of the Safe Schools Improvement Act. Justine Sessions, a committee spokesperson, said Harkin hopes to include the pro-LGBT measures as part of education reform.

“Chairman Harkin is a strong supporter of efforts to protect students against discrimination and bullying, and hopes to address these issues in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” she said.

Bipartisan support could emerge for the Safe Schools Improvement Act because Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is an original co-sponsor for the legislation. A former House member, Kirk has said in the lower chamber of Congress Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) could be an original co-sponsor of the legislation.

For the Student Non-Discrimination Act, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) is a GOP co-sponsor on the House side. The Senate version doesn’t have a Republican co-sponsor. The Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act doesn’t have a GOP co-sponsor in either the House or Senate.

The sources said Kirk’s support for the Safe Schools Improvement Act could be used to leverage support from Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), ranking member of the Senate HELP Committee, for inclusion of the bill as part of the larger vehicle.

Gaylord said additional GOP co-sponsors for the standalone pro-LGBT legislation would help bolster their chances of success as part of education reform.

“I just think more Republican support for these bills will obviously be important, particularly in the House,” he said.

The Republican strategist said leadership from Senate Democrats “saying that this is something important” is needed to ensure LGBT anti-bullying and non-discrimination language are included in education reform.

“You’re also going to need to demonstrate enough Republican support on the House side that Republicans are able to allow it to end up in the final package,” the strategist said.

LGBT rights supporters also say that pressure from the White House and explict endorsements of the anti-bullying and non-discrimination from Obama are important to ensure they’re part of larger legislation.

Support for those measures from Obama would build on the anti-bullying conference that the White House held this month to shed light on harassment of students and devise ways to mitigate bullying against students — both in schools and online.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said the president supports “the goals” of the pro-LGBT bills and wants to ensure students are free from harassment as they pursue their studies.

“This year, 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 he welcomes the steps that White House has taken against student bullying and harassment, but noted the president has yet to voice explicit support for the pro-LGBT bills.

“The administration has not yet called for passage of either [the Safe Schools Improvement Act or the Student Non-Discrimination Act] by name, so that is sort of the next step,” Gaylord said. “Now would be that time that we would really anticipate the administration to step up and be even more specific in their support for legislative vehicles.”

The anonymous Republican strategist said “there’s no question” anti-bullying efforts are a priority for the Obama administration, but the extent to which the president will fight for passage of legislation remains to be seen.

“That has not been translated into support for specific legislation, so I think the jury’s still out on the degree to which the administration will advocate for this particular change — whether they’ll advocate for it all or whether they’ll advocate for it specifically as a part of this education revamp.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the House version of the Student Non-Discrimination Act doesn’t have a Republican co-sponsor. The Washington Blade regrets the error.

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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