The lead Democrat on education issues in the U.S. Senate introduced on Tuesday an education reform bill that includes provisions aimed at prohibiting bullying and discrimination of LGBT students.
For the first time, Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced the LGBT-inclusive legislation to reauthorize the Elementary & Secondary Education Act with language along the lines of the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe School Schools Improvement Act.
In a statement to the Washington Blade, Harkin touted the inclusion of the LGBT bills in his 1,150-page long bill known as the Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013
“Because every child deserves a safe and healthy place to learn, we have included the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act in this year’s reauthorization of ESEA,” Harkin said. “These provisions will help to ensure that all students, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, are treated fairly and afforded equal opportunities to succeed in the classroom.”
Modeled after Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the SNDA-like provision in the bill establishes LGBT students as a protected class and prohibits schools from discriminating against any student based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The discrimination includes allowing bullying against them.
The bill also contains provisions similar to SSIA that advocates for a positive school climate and requires reporting on incidents of bullying, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Plans are already underway to advance the bill out of committee. In a statement, Harkin announced he’ll start the markup of the bill, which is co-sponsored by every Democratic member of the committee, starting Tuesday.
The LGBT provisions are a small portion of the bill. The reauthorization of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act, which intends to restructure “No Child Left Behind,” aims to support teachers and principals to help provide high-quality instruction and focus federal attention on supporting states in turning around low-performing schools.
Given that every Democrat on the panel is a co-sponsor of the education reform bill, the measure should have sufficient support for a successful committee vote. It remains to be seen whether any Republicans will vote in favor of the measure.
On the same day that Harkin introduced the education reform bill, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) introduced the standalone version of the Student Non-Discrimination Act.
“No child should dread going to school because they don’t feel safe,” Franken said. “Our nation’s civil rights laws protect our children from bullying due to race, sex, religion, disability and national origin. My proposal extends these protections to our gay and lesbian students who shouldn’t ever feel afraid of going to school.”
Franken’s legislation has 30 co-sponsors, including lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), although the co-sponsors are Democrats.
In the House, SNDA has already been introduced. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a gay lawmaker who’s sponsoring the bill, commended Harkin for including the LGBT measure as part of his education reform bill.
“SNDA’s inclusion in this important bill is reflective of how important protecting all students is and I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Education & Workforce Committee to move forward on our bipartisan bill in the House,” Polis said.
SSIA has also already been introduced in the House and Senate. In the House, the bill is sponsored by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) while in the Senate, the chief sponsor is Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.).
Last year, Harkin introduced a version of ESEA reauthorization that lacked either SNDA or SSIA. During committee markup, advocates pressured Franken and Casey to introduce their legislation as amendments during the committee markup. They ultimately withdrew their amendments in committee while promising to offer the bills as amendments on the Senate floor. However, the full Senate never considered ESEA reauthorization.
LGBT advocates praised Harkin for introducing the LGBT-inclusive education reform bill and said they’d work to make sure the measure is signed into law.
Ian Thompson, legislative representative of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his organization is “very pleased” Harkin included in ESEA reauthorization a piece of LGBT legislation the ACLU has long sought.
“The fact that there is still no federal law – in the year 2013 – that explicitly protects LGBT students from discrimination and harassment in our nation’s public schools is unacceptable,” Thompson said. “We look forward to working with Chairman Harkin and Sen. Franken, SNDA’s longtime Senate champion, to advance this much-needed and long-overdue civil rights measure through the HELP Committee.”
Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, called the introduction of the LGBT-inclusive bill “a significant moment for our nation’s education system.”
“We are thrilled that the Senate is moving to address the long overdue issue of school bullying and harassment” Byard said. “This bill includes critical components to ensure safer learning environments. We will continue to work with the Senate as the process moves forward to make sure that key provisions remain intact so that every student can reach their fullest potential.”
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, also expressed support for working with Congress on issues of bullying and harassment as the legislation goes forward.
“As 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.