On October 20, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee passed a bill to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), by a bipartisan vote of 15 to 7. All twelve Democrats on the committee voted for the bill. They were joined by three Republicans:Senators Mike Enzi (R-WY), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Mark Kirk (R-IL).
“[This] is a victory—both for our nation’s children and for bipartisanship,” said Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA). “After more than two years of hearings, debate, and negotiations, the HELP Committee has come together in a bipartisan way to approve comprehensive legislation to improve education for our nation’s children.” Harkin said the bill is “not perfect,” but is an “important step forward for America’s children.” He said he would continue to work with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle and education experts to “build on this strong foundation and improve this bill when it is considered by the full Senate.”
Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), top Republican on the HELP Committee, agreed that more work needs to be done when the bill reaches the Senate floor. “We must keep working in order to have true bipartisan education reform,” Enzi said. “I thank my colleagues for their hard work and look forward to continuing to work with them as we move forward in the legislative process.”
Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) noted that the bill would provide much-needed accountability for high schools. “For too long, high schools across the country have looked the other way when their students dropped out,” he said. “This bill, for the first time, shines a spotlight on these ‘dropout factories’ and requires them to make substantial improvements to better serve students who are at risk of dropping out.”
In a statement, Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, outlined several other provisions geared toward reforming the nation’s high schools. He said the bill would “level the playing field” for high schools by allowing them to receive Title I funds—the federal government’s primary source of support for low-income students. He noted that high schools only receive 10 percent of Title I funds under NCLB even though they serve nearly one-quarter of low-income students, and said the bill would help to make sure that more high school students can benefit from these resources. Wise also said the legislation also supports state efforts to strengthen the reading and writing skills of all students, including those in middle and high school, and would help to ensure that the high school diplomas students receive are meaningful by calling for college- and career-ready standards.
“No Child Left Behind is a compact disc in an iPod world,” Wise said. “Today, it got a much-needed upgrade that will bring it—and the nation’s education system—into the twenty-first century. I urge the Senate to move this bill to the floor quickly. High school students have waited long enough for better policy from Washington, DC. For each additional day that action is delayed, another 7,000 students will drop out of school.”
Some provisions could slow down Senate approval of the bill—most notably the provision that would eliminate the Adequate Yearly Progress requirements found in NCLB. Instead, states would have to ensure that all students are making “continuous improvement” and identify the elementary, middle, and high schools in the bottom 5 percent of performance—including high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent—and implement turnaround strategies in those schools. These provisions seemingly providing different responses based on the type of school students attend have received criticism from business organizations as well as those representing students with disabilities, low-income students, and students of color.
In a blog post on ed.gov, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also expressed concern that the bill would not go far enough to maintain a “strong commitment” to accountability. “Parents, teachers, and state leaders across the country understand that in order to prepare all of our young people to compete in the global economy, we must hold ourselves and each other accountable at every level of the education system—from the classroom to the school district, from the states to the federal government,” he wrote.
Duncan also noted that the Senate bill lacks a “comprehensive evaluation and support system” to guide teachers and principals in continuing to improve their practice. Just prior to the markup, Harkin and Enzi made a last-minute change to the legislation that would let states and districts determine how to evaluate teachers. Before the change, states would have been required to create teacher evaluation systems with input from educators.
The next step in the legislative process is a HELP Committee hearing on the bill on November 8. After the hearing, the bill could go to the Senate floor for consideration, and although no date has been set, Harkin says he hopes the legislation will reach the Senate floor before Thanksgiving.
One issue working in the bill’s favor is the bipartisan opposition to President Obama’s plan to grant waivers to states on certain NCLB requirements. In the absence of new legislation rewriting NCLB, the president’s plan would grant states flexibility from specific provisions of the law in exchange for state-led reform efforts to close achievement gaps, evaluate teachers and principals, promote rigorous accountability, and ensure that all students are on track to graduate ready for college and a career.
During his opening statement at the HELP Committee markup, Enzi offered several reasons why his republican colleagues should prefer the legislative route. “Members on my side should keep in mind that if they are concerned about issues such as mandated teacher and principal evaluations and performance measures, they should support today’s draft legislation which does neither, but is contained as a requirement in the president’s conditional waivers,” Enzi said. “If they are concerned about an unelected, unaccountable bureaucracy becoming a kind of National School Board, they should support this legislation, rather than allow the Secretary’s waivers to dictate the strings that come with state and local flexibility contained in the president’s waivers.”
Enzi is not alone in his opposition to the president’s waiver plan, a fact Harkin made clear after the markup. “I think both sides agree that we’d rather do it here than have waivers by the administration,” Harkin said. “After that, there [are] obviously a lot of differences, but that’s the nature of legislation.”
On the House side, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce is working on a piecemeal approach to rewriting NCLB rather than one comprehensive piece of legislation. So far, the committee has passed three pieces of legislation, but has yet to address some of the most significant issues within education policy, including accountability, teacher effectiveness, and funding levels for the largest federal education programs. The committee is expected to consider legislation addressing these issues between now and the end of the year.
Harkin says that he met with members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee prior to the Senate markup to talk about the process of reconciling the different approaches to rewriting NCLB and remains optimistic that the House could act quickly if the Senate were able to pass a bipartisan bill. Should Congress be able to come to an agreement and pass a bill to rewrite NCLB prior to the end of the year—and the president signs it into law—it could negate the need for waivers.
“There is no reason why Congress should not be able to send legislation fixing No Child Left Behind to the president by Christmas,” Alexander said in a speech on the Senate floor.