WASHINGTON - Buried in the proposed rewrite of the nation's massive education law are protections for gay and lesbian students that its supporters liken to the landmark 1972 protections for the rights of female athletes in high school and college.
Senate Democrats on Tuesday released a 1,150-page revision of the law governing the nation's elementary and secondary schools, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act but more commonly called No Child Left Behind.
In it, they include student nondiscrimination language that, if passed, would threaten schools' funding if gay and lesbian students are bullied or harassed.
The supporters praised the language as similar to Title IX, the federal law chiefly known for mandating gender equity in high school and collegiate sports.
The legislation's text on gays and lesbians begins on Page 694 of the massive school bill.
"This is a significant moment for our nation's education system and one that addresses the vital needs of all students in K-12 schools," said Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. "We are thrilled that the Senate is moving to address the long overdue issue of school bullying and harassment. This bill includes critical components to ensure safer learning environments."
The bill bans discrimination against students who are gay - or who are perceived as gay - in any program that receives federal education dollars. Schools that do not provide sufficient protection to gays and lesbians could find their dollars cut.
"No child should dread going to school because they don't feel safe," said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. "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."
Two years ago, Franken offered a similar provision to the same education bill and likened it to Title IX expansion of athletic opportunities for girls and women.
At the time, Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, wanted the rewrite to have bipartisan support coming out of his committee. Franken withdrew the provision.
The full Senate did not vote on the 2011 bill.
This time, Harkin, D-Iowa, applauded the protections "because every child deserves a safe and healthy place to learn."
"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," Harkin said.
The provision was not highlighted in the news release announcing the bill, which would rewrite parts of the 2001 law to give states greater flexibility in improving schools.
Harkin's committee planned to start work on the bill on June 11, but Democratic aides said the bill had not yet been scheduled for consideration by the full Senate. Aides suggested it could be autumn before it reached all senators.
The gay protections are a minor part of the sweeping bill that governs all schools that receive federal dollars for poor, minority and disabled students and those whose primary language is not English.
Twenty-nine percent of students ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied at school or online, according to the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics. Its definition of bullying included name-calling, rumors, physical harm or exclusion from activities.
The statistics do not indicate a cause for such bullying.
The most well-known parts of the education law up for debate are its one-size-fits-all national requirements. Under Harkin's rewrite, states would develop those standards for themselves but they would require Education Secretary Arne Duncan's approval.
The state-by-state approach to education standards is already largely in place in the 37 states that received waivers to the requirements in exchange for customized school improvement plans. Some of those states already operating under waivers would have to tinker with their improvement plans to comply with the proposal. Other states would be forced to develop their own reform efforts.
The overhaul faces an uphill path and its gay provisions weren't expected to win it support from Republicans.
A politically polarized Congress has failed to renew the law since it expired in 2007. Harkin's Republican counterpart, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, has supported updating No Child Left Behind, but his approach has not always melded with Harkin's.
Lawmakers in the Republican-led House, meanwhile, were reluctant to take steps that could be seen as telling local schools how to best teach their students and enrage tea party activists. Many GOP lawmakers also have been critical of Duncan's tenure as secretary and are unlikely to rush to give him more authority.
A separate legislative wrangle over student loans is certain to get higher priority. Interest rates on new subsidized Stafford loans are set to double on July 1 without congressional action. Competing versions of legislation to avoid that increase on students are making their way through the House and Senate.