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NCLB REWRITE ADVANCES: Senate Begins Bipartisan Negotiations as House Committee Passes Partisan Bill

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Ultimately, the main event will take place when the House and Senate work behind closed doors to hammer out a compromise that is acceptable to sixty members of the Senate and President Obama.

Five days after two key U.S. Senators announced that they would begin bipartisan negotiations on a bill to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the U.S. House committee responsible for rewriting the law passed a partisan bill that drew criticism from civil rights groups and the U.S. Secretary of Education.

The House bill, formally known as the Student Success Act, passed the House Committee on Education and the Workforce by a party-line vote on February 11—eight days after it was first introduced. House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) said the bill would “[reduce] the federal footprint, [restore] local control, and [empower] parents and education leaders to hold schools accountable.” Democrats disagreed and charged that the bill would “turn back the clock on American public education and harm [the] nation’s neediest children.”

The Student Success Act would eliminate more than sixty-five education programs, including the School Improvement Grant program, which targets high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent and other low-performing schools, and the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program, which provides reading help for struggling students from preschool through grade twelve. Republicans believe this approach, which delivers federal money to states without specific instructions on how to spend it, would give states flexibility to spend the money how they see fit. Democrats counter that states are unlikely to spend the money on schools and students most in need and could be tempted to spend the money on non-educational purchases. In his weekly video address on February 14, President Obama said that the Student Success Act “could let states and cities shuffle education dollars into things like sports stadiums or tax cuts for the wealthy.”

The bill would keep NCLB’s testing schedule, which requires states to assess students in reading and math every year in grades three through eight and once in high school, but it would eliminate the federal accountability system, including NCLB’s “adequate yearly progress” measure. Instead, it would require states to create their own systems to measure school and student performance and hold schools responsible for student performance. Margaret Spellings, who served as U.S. Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, told Politico that such an approach offers “too much flexibility for states.” She noted that states did not have very strong accountability systems prior to NCLB and warned that they “could head down that path again.”

In a statement, Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, said that House Republicans are “forgetting the safeguards and support that [ESEA] provides to the nation’s most disadvantaged students.” He said the Student Success Act does not hold states and school responsible for improving high school graduation rates, would not target resources to the lowest-performing high schools, and does not require interventions when traditionally underserved students consistently demonstrate low performance. “Changes to the law should reflect what the nation has learned since NCLB passed, while preserving key protections for low-income students, students of color, and other underserved students,” Wise said.

Looking ahead, the brisk action in the House is likely to continue, with the Student Success Act expected to be voted on by the full House of Representatives during the week of February 23.

On the other side of the U.S. Capitol, action in the Senate, which has already held two hearings and a roundtable discussion with education experts, has moved behind closed doors after the February 6 announcement by Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and top committee Democrat Patty Murray (D-WA) that their staffs would begin bipartisan negotiations. These staff-level discussions are likely focused on big-ticket items, such as accountability, assessment, and funding.

In the latest episode of “Federal Flash,” the Alliance for Excellent Education’s weekly five-minute video update on federal education policy, Jessica Cardichon, the Alliance’s senior director of policy and advocacy, noted that longer negotiations increase the likelihood of a bipartisan bill, but they also push back the date when the Senate HELP Committee can vote on the bill. She added that Alexander probably wants to move the bill out of committee and to the Senate floor in March or April before other priorities begin to take up valuable floor time.

Most education observers believe that action on the House and Senate floors to rewrite NCLB will be the opening act, with the House passing a bill representing the conservative approach to education reform and the Senate possibly putting forward a more bipartisan approach—although that outcome is still very much in the air. Ultimately, the main event will take place when the House and Senate work behind closed doors to hammer out a compromise that is acceptable to sixty members of the Senate and President Obama.

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