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ESEA ON THE WAY?: House Passes Legislation to Rewrite NCLB; Bill Faces Big Hurdle in Senate Where Separate Legislation Remains Stalled

“For the first time in more than a decade, the House has approved legislation to revamp K–12 education law,” said House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN).

On July 19, by a vote of 221–207, with no Democrats voting in support, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). House Republicans said the legislation, named the Student Success Act, would “restore local control, support effective teachers, reduce the federal footprint, and empower parents,” while House Democrats said that it “walks away from our nation’s civil rights responsibility to ensure all children have access to a quality education.”

“For the first time in more than a decade, the House has approved legislation to revamp K–12 education law,” said House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN). “This is a monumental step forward in the fight to improve the nation’s education system and ensure a brighter future for our children. The Student Success Act will tear down barriers to progress and grant states and districts the freedom and flexibility they need to think bigger, innovate, and take whatever steps are necessary to raise the bar in our schools.”

By limiting the involvement of the federal government in education, the Student Success Act is a direct response to what Republicans believe is an overstep by the Obama administration in recent years, especially in regard to waivers the administration has granted from certain requirements of NCLB in exchange for reform. A summary of the bill released by the House Education and the Workforce Committee notes that it would “protect state and local autonomy over decisions in the classroom by limiting the authority of the secretary of education” and “eliminate federally mandated actions and interventions currently required of poor-performing schools.”

The bill would eliminate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and replace it with state-determined accountability systems free of federal safeguards. That differs from the path taken by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), which passed its own bill to rewrite NCLB out of committee on June 12. That bill, the Strengthening America’s Schools Act would also eliminate AYP in favor of state- and locally-designed accountability systems, but it calls for reform in low-performing schools, including high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent.

“The Alliance appreciates the Student Success Act’s inclusion of the adjusted cohort rate graduation rate requirement for calculating and reporting purposes,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “However, unlike its Senate counterpart, the Student Success Act lacks any graduation rate accountability and fails to ensure adequate reform in low-performing high schools, including the more than 1,400 high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent. In addition, the bill eliminates funding for the High School Graduation Initiative, the only federal program dedicated solely to strengthening high schools.”

In addition to the HSGI, the Student Success Act would eliminate more than seventy existing elementary and secondary education programs, including the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program and funding for state assessments.

“NCLB is very much the education reform of the past. It is inflexible. It encouraged some states to lower their standards. That’s why it’s time to rewrite this law—to embrace the principle that all students can learn if given the opportunity and to encourage high standards that meet the needs of a twenty-first-century global economy,” said U.S. Representative George Miller (D-CA), senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “Unfortunately, [the Student Success Act] moves our education system in the wrong direction for students and schools already struggling under a broken system. It lets American kids down at a critical time.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan agreed and said he would recommend that President Obama veto the Students Success Act if it were presented to him.

“[The Student Success Act] marks a retreat from high standards for all students and would virtually eliminate accountability for the learning of historically underserved students—a huge step backward for efforts to improve academic achievement,” Duncan said. “It would lock in major cuts to education funding at a time when continued investments in education are the only way we can remain competitive on the world stage.”

The bill was referred to the Senate, where legislation passed by the HELP Committee—the Strengthening America’s Schools Act (SASA)—also awaits further action. Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) said that he would like to bring SASA up for a vote on the Senate floor, but it could face difficulty finding the Republican support necessary for the bill to pass the full Senate, especially because it did not receive any Republican support when voted out of the Senate HELP Committee.

Although he opposed SASA during its consideration by the HELP Committee, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), top Republican on the HELP Committee, said he “will fully support” Harkin’s effort to bring the bill to the floor for senators to debate it and offer amendments.

With one bill to rewrite NCLB passed out of the House and another one passed out of the Senate HELP Committee—even though the two bills are widely apart in their approach to the federal role in education—the prospect of an NCLB rewrite is brighter now than at any point in the last few years.

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