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House Lawmakers Set to Debate No Child Left Behind Act Rewrite

By Alyson Klein — July 17, 2013 4 min read
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On the eve of a possible vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on long-stalled legislation to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act, the bill’s road to passage is still somewhat bumpy. House leaders have scheduled votes for Thursday on a host of amendments to the proposed Elementary and Secondary Education Act revision—26 of them altogether. But so far, a vote on final passage hasn’t been scheduled, which gives leaders extra time to twist some arms, if they need to. The final vote could be Thursday, Friday, or later, if need be.

What’s in on amendments: Lawmakers will consider an amendment by U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the Majority Leader, to allow Title I money to follow students to any public school of their choice, including a charter school. And they’ll vote on a provision by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., that would reinstate the so-called 1 percent cap on alternative assessments for students with disabilities.

They’ll also vote on a “sense of Congress” resolution, by Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, a Republican of Missouri, that chides the U.S. Department of Education for using Race to the Top to coerce states into adopting the Common Core State Standards. And they’ll consider an amendment by Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., to allow states to opt out of accountability measures; federal K-12 funding could then go to taxpayers.

And an amendment by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, a former teacher, was significantly changed. Bishop had initially wanted to scrap language in the bill requiring states and districts to craft teacher evaluations based on student outcomes. That got tossed at a Rules Committee meeting on Wednesday. Instead, Bishop is teaming up with Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., on a provision clarifying that there would be no federal mandate on teacher evaluations. (Unclear to me what the policy impact of that would be.)

What’s not on the list: An amendment by Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., to put in place “staggered testing.” Initially, Mr. Gibson had a Democratic co-sponsor, Rep. Takano, D-Calif., (a former teacher), but he dropped out. The amendment would have scrapped the testing requirement in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school under the current law (and in the bill). Instead, states would just have to test students once at some point between grades 3 to 5, 6 to 9, and 10-12.

Other amendments that didn’t make it to prime time: An amendment from Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., to change the Title I funding formula. Also amendments by Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., and Bishop to allow parents to use Title I dollars at private schools. (Bishop has instead teamed up with Cantor on his amendment.)

So will this thing pass? The politics of the underlying bill are somewhat complicated. The legislation takes a big step back when it comes to the federal accountability system at the heart of the current law, but still doesn’t go nearly as far as some in the GOP would like. And Republicans aren’t likely to pick up many votes from Democrats, who say the bill waters down accountability, particularly when it comes to the most vulnerable children. Business organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is typically more closely aligned with the GOP, agree with the Democrats on this one.

Still, Cantor was confident at a press conference Tuesday saying that the bill would be successful on the floor. And the tentative vote count from earlier this week looked potentially promising for the bill’s passage, advocates say.

A lot may depend on whether House leaders can persuade the most conservative members of their caucus—many of whom ran on getting rid of the U.S. Department of Education—to vote for the measure. And the few I spoke to don’t know yet how they’re going to vote—or how the bill will fare on the floor.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., who has introduced an amendment to replace the bill with the A-Plus Act, which would allow states to opt out of the law’s testing and accountability mandates, said he’s still deciding whether to vote for the measure.

“We’re trying to find a way to support this,” said Duncan in an interview."I don’t believe [the underlying legislation] went far enough.”

Garrett agreed, and added that he didn’t think his caucus was treating the ESEA bill like the “Farm bill"—an agriculture measure that recently stumbled on the floor. Garrett, Gibson, and Bishop all told me they are still deciding how to vote.

During the Rules Committee’s consideration of the bill, Bishop told the bill’s author, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., that there were “parts of the bill you and your staff deserve to be kissed on the lips for.” But he is torn, he said, because in his view, much of the legislation would go too far in keeping in place the federal role in K-12. In particular, he’s worried about the teacher-evaluation provisions.

“I do have some philosophical problems. The idea of teacher evaluation mandated by the federal government is still wrong ... it’s wrong, no matter how well-intentioned it is,” Bishop told Kline, the chairman of the House education committee.

But Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., a senior member of the education committee, is fully on board, even though the bill doesn’t go as far as she would like. In a perfect world, Foxx said, the feds wouldn’t have a role in K-12. But she thinks this bill is a major improvement over NCLB.

“I can’t understand why some people would just say no,” she said in an interview. “They let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”