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SENATE PASSES NCLB REWRITE: Bill to Reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Faces Uphill Climb to Becoming Law

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"In order for a bill to be signed by the President, it must have a stronger federal role in education, meaning that the House can’t pass a final bill by relying on Republican votes alone."

Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives each passed bills to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In the coming weeks, designees from the Senate and House will meet in conference committee to negotiate a bill that is agreeable to both chambers and President Obama. Their task will be difficult due both to the significant differences between the bills, as well as the White House’s concerns with both bills in their current forms.

The Senate passed its bill, the Every Child Achieves Act, on July 16 by a bipartisan vote of 81 to 17. Fourteen Republicans voted against it. They were joined by three Democrats, Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

“Last week, Newsweek magazine called this the ‘law that everyone wants to fix’—and today the Senate’s shown that not only is there broad consensus on the need to fix this law—remarkably, there’s also broad consensus on how to fix it,” said Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN). “This is the consensus: continue the law’s important measurements of students’ academic progress but restore to states, school districts, classroom teachers, and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about the results of those tests. On the Senate floor, we’ve … passed a bill that says that the path to higher standards, better teaching, and real accountability is through the states and local communities, not Washington, DC. Now our job is to work with the House to produce a conference report that we can send to the president’s desk.”

In a speech on the Senate floor after the bill’s passage, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), top Democrat on the HELP Committee, said that the Every Child Achieves Act was not the bill that she or Alexander would have written, but she called it a “strong bill that all sides can be proud of.” Murray also acknowledged that more work was needed on the bill, particularly to strengthen accountability and address inequality—two priorities that the White House has said must be addressed before the president will sign the bill.

The Senate had the opportunity to strengthen the bill’s accountability requirements during floor debate when it considered an amendment by Booker, Murphy, and Warren, as well as U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-DE), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). The amendment would have ensured that states were responsible for improving the lowest-performing schools, including the more than 1,200 high schools with high school graduation rates at or below 67 percent that enroll more than 1.1 million students. The amendment would have also ensured that these high schools were eligible for school improvement grants while providing states, districts, and schools with the flexibility to implement evidence-based, comprehensive intervention. It also would have provided support to schools with large achievement gaps and to the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools. The amendment failed by a vote of 43 to 54.

In a statement explaining his opposition to the Every Child Achieves Act, Booker said it did not “provide meaningful accountability measures that address the disparate achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color.” Booker added that the U.S. Congress “must pass legislation that provides support, access, and opportunity to equip the next generation to succeed, regardless of their socioeconomic status.”

In total, the Senate considered seventy-eight amendments during floor debate, of which sixty-five were adopted, including one by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) that requires state plans to focus on the specific needs of middle and high schools.

Both the Senate bill and the House bill, the Student Success Act, eliminate NCLB’s accountability system and the requirement that schools make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), but neither bill replaces AYP with safeguards to ensure that traditionally underserved students receive the resources they need to succeed. Both bills also eliminate the requirements accompanying School Improvement Grants around the firing of teachers and principals and closing of schools, and neither bill includes a requirement for teacher evaluation or any minimum requirements for teachers, such as being “highly qualified.”

Among the differences, the House bill includes a provision referred to as “Title I Portability,” which allows Title I funds intended for schools with high poverty rates to instead be used in schools with lower concentrations of students from low-income families. The Senate voted against similar amendments during floor debate. Similarly, the House bill allows students to opt out of the assessments required under the law, but the Senate overwhelmingly rejected this proposal.

In the July 16 episode of “Federal Flash,” the Alliance for Excellent Education’s video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC, Phillip Lovell, vice president for policy and advocacy, explains that House Democrats, whose input was limited during consideration of the Student Success Act, could play a larger role in the House-Senate conference negotiations.

“The House passed its bill by the slimmest of margins,” Lovell said. “A number of Republicans voted against it because the bill wasn’t conservative enough. But in order for a bill to be signed by the President, it must have a stronger federal role in education, meaning that the House can’t pass a final bill by relying on Republican votes alone. They are going to have to secure some democratic votes.”

Lovell predicted that U.S. Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) will have “quite a bit of leverage” during negotiations. For his part, Scott said in a statement that the Every Child Achieves Act in its current form, “remains unworthy of the president’s signature,” noting that the bill “fails to require state and school district action to close persistent achievement gaps and graduate all students—regardless of race, income, disability, or language status—ready for college and career.”

In his statement on the Senate bill, Alliance for Excellent Education President Bob Wise also stressed the importance of increased support for low-performing schools and students.

“The Every Child Achieves Act requires states to collect and report data on schools and provides extensive flexibility to states on how to respond, but it does not actually require states to act,” Wise said. “Instead, it permits states to decide when, if, and where to intervene. That’s like equipping the fire department with new tools and alarms, then letting it choose which fires to put out. … Support for low-graduation-rate high schools and protections for these students must be included in this bill before it becomes law.”

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.