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STRENGTHENING AMERICA’S SCHOOLS: Senate HELP Committee Passes Bill to Rewrite NCLB, House to Consider Its Version of Bill on June 19

“I am pleased that the HELP Committee has passed this critical bill to replace the failed tenets of NCLB and give states the flexibility to institute their own college- and career-ready standards, performance targets, academic assessments, and accountability models that will improve our schools,” said Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin

On June 12, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) passed a bill to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The bill, named the Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013 (SASA), passed on party lines with all twelve Democrats on the committee voting in favor of the bill and all ten Republicans voting against.1

“I am pleased that the HELP Committee has passed this critical bill to replace the failed tenets of NCLB and give states the flexibility to institute their own college- and career-ready standards, performance targets, academic assessments, and accountability models that will improve our schools,” said Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA).

Harkin’s press release on SASA’s passage credits NCLB for providing important information about student performance and accountability but says it “unintentionally led to lower standards, a narrowing of curriculum, and a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to school improvement.” It also states that SASA would “provide states and districts with the certainty, support, and freedom they need to prepare all children for success in the twenty-first century” and highlights four broad themes: (1) focus greater attention on children in their early years to ensure they come to school ready to learn; (2) Encourage equity through greater transparency and fair distribution of resources; (3) sustain current state reform efforts and provide states with the flexibility they need to improve their schools; and (4) support great teachers and principals and ensure that all children receive the best instruction.

Writing for the Alliance’s “High School Soup” blogJessica Cardichon, the Alliance’s director of federal advocacy, identifies a number of provisions in the bill targeted at the nation’s high schools, including one that would make more of the nation’s lowest-performing high schools eligible for increased funding, attention, and intervention. She notes that U.S. high schools currently serve 22 percent of students from low-income families yet receive only 10 percent of Title I funding. Additional provisions geared toward high schools would

  • target intervention to the lowest-achieving 5 percent of secondary schools and any public high school with a graduation rate less than 60 percent;
  • identify for intervention any public high school that is within the 10 percent of schools with the greatest graduation rate gaps among subgroups as compared to the statewide average;
  • use an accurate definition—the four-year adjusted cohort rate—to determine high school graduation rates and preclude the use of other less accurate rates;
  • ensure all students are prepared for college and a career by equipping them with “deeper learning” skills, such as the ability to apply rigorous academic content to real-world situations, think critically, and solve complex problems;
  • revise the Pathways to College initiative to better align with President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget request for a High School Redesign program, which emphasizes the importance of rigorous academic content, applied and work-based learning opportunities, partnerships, and wraparound supports, all of which reflect the Linked Learning approach being implemented in a number of California school districts; and
  • create a new pilot program that permits states, or a consortia of states, to incorporate “competency-based learning”—which advances students after they master course content—into their statewide accountability system.

Other provisions would use more accurate and standardized measures of poverty at the secondary school level; increase the focus on improving school climate and providing wraparound support; and expand standards and assessments to support instructional practices.

The next step in the process is bringing SASA to the Senate floor, something that could happen as soon as July. If last week’s markup is any indication, however, Harkin could face difficulty finding the Republican support necessary for the bill to pass the full Senate. As mentioned earlier, no Republicans on the HELP Committee voted for the bill—a significant difference from October 2011, when the previous bill to rewrite ESEA received support from Republican Senators Mike Enzi (R-WY)Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Mark Kirk (R-IL).

In a statement issued after last week’s markup, Alexander, who now serves as the committee’s top Republican, charged that the SASA would “establish a national school board.” Alexander favored an approach that would significantly limit the federal government’s involvement, instead providing more state and local control while limiting the secretary of education’s waiver authority and consolidating sixty-two programs authorized in NCLB into two block grants, among other provisions.

Education Week’s “Politics K–12” blog has a helpful side-by-side comparison of Harkin’s and Alexander’s respective approaches. It also includes the approach favored by House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN), whose committee will mark up his version of a bill to rewrite ESEA, called the Student Success Act, on June 19 at 9:00 am (EDT). Live video of that markup will be available at

Video of the Senate markup and the text of amendments considered are available at

1 U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) caucuses with the Democratic Party

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