ESEA Outlook Murky, Despite House Panel's Vote

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The future of Republican-backed legislation to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act remains cloudy—even after the House education committee gave a pair of measures its seal of approval last week.

The two bills, both introduced by U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the committee, would give states much more running room in K-12 policy, a 180-degree pivot from the current version of the law, the decade-old No Child Left Behind Act. The measures, dealing with accountability and teacher-quality issues, passed Feb. 28 on a party-line vote of 23-16.

But some Republicans would like to see the bills go even further, gutting the U.S. Department of Education. And getting Democratic support for the measures—which would ultimately have to be signed by President Barack Obama—is a tall order. Democrats made it clear during committee debate that they think the bills are a step in the wrong direction.

Rep. John Kline introduced two controversial bills.
Rep. John Kline introduced two controversial bills.

The legislation "turn[s] its back on the civil rights promises of this nation: that every child deserves a fair shot at success, no matter what their background," said Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the panel.

But Rep. Kline sees it differently. He said the bills "untie the hands of state and local leaders who are clamoring for the opportunity to change the status quo and revive innovation in our classrooms."

And, in an interview after the markup of the bills, Rep. Kline said he hopes to get the legislation to the House floor this year.

"We've got to keep the process moving forward," he said.

Legislative Hurdles

In the House, no floor action has been scheduled at this point, said a spokeswoman for Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the majority leader.

Separately, the Senate education committee on Oct. 20 approved its own bill to reauthorize the ESEA.

But that measure's sponsor, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has said he's not going to move the legislation to the floor until the House of Representatives passes a bipartisan ESEA-renewal bill. It's unclear just how much Democratic support would be needed to qualify the bills as bipartisan in his view.

"There's no doubt that achieving bipartisan consensus on a critical and complex issue like education reform is difficult," Sen. Harkin said. "But it is not impossible. …We achieved it just last fall in the [Senate education] committee."

The two top Republicans on the Senate education committee, Sens. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, were in favor of the Senate bill. But most GOP lawmakers on the panel voted no.

Some Republicans on the House committee, meanwhile, want an even smaller role for the federal government.

For instance, at last week's House markup, Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., introduced, then withdrew, an amendment that would have allowed states to opt out of federal funding for education and give the money back to taxpayers.

And if Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., had his way, the Education Department would be reduced to just one staff person, who would distribute best-practices information to states. K-12 policy just isn't a federal issue, he said in an interview.

Fans and Detractors

The House Education and the Workforce Committee approved two separate pieces of legislation, one aimed at accountability, and the other at teacher quality. The accountability bill, called the Student Success Act, would dismantle adequate yearly progress, or AYP, the controversial yardstick at the heart of the NCLB law, and allow states to craft their own accountability systems.

It would no longer require states to test students in science. And it would scrap the School Improvement Grant program, which offers resources to states to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

The teacher bill would require states and districts to craft teacher-evaluation systems tied in part to student achievement. And it would get rid of many targeted federal programs, such as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which covers after-school activities, in favor of block grants to states and districts.

The House legislation has fans and detractors. The American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards AssociationRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader have officially endorsed the measures, applauding the flexibility for local districts.

But the Tri-CaucusRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, a group of powerful House lawmakers representing districts with many black, Hispanic, and Asian students, says the bills are a big step back on accountability, particularly for subgroups of students, such as racial minorities and English-language learners.

And 38 business and civil rights groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Council of La Raza, and the Education Trust, share those concerns.

Formula Fight

During House committee consideration, lawmakers voted to accept an amendment from Rep. Rokita that would seek to reduce the number of staff employees at the Education Department.

But another amendment, which rural school advocates have long pushed, went down to defeat. The provision, introduced by Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., would have revamped the Title I funding formula, which distributes money for disadvantaged students.

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Now, the formula favors high-population areas, such as Montgomery Country, Md., one of the richest counties in the country, over smaller, rural school systems like those in Mr. Thompson's western Pennsylvania district. The change would have been phased in over four years.

Rep. Thompson contended that such a change would be a matter of fairness. But Rep. Miller, the panel's senior Democrat, argued that the provision wouldn't be fair to the school districts that would lose out under the deal, since there wouldn't be any extra Title I money to offset their loss. The amendment failed on a vote of 22-16, despite Rep. Kline's support.

Democrats' Proposals

Democrats introduced two amendments, including one that would have replaced the accountability bill with their own version.

The language, offered by Rep. Miller, would have required states to set their own achievement targets and expanded accountability for English-learners and students in special education, among other provisions. The amendment was defeated on a party-line vote.

Rep. Miller also put forth a replacement measure on the teacher bill. Mr. Miller's language would have kept in place the requirement that districts and states craft teacher-evaluation systems tied to student outcomes. And it would have included an authorization for funding for such programs as not pre-K American history, and the arts. That also went down on a party-line vote.

Vol. 31, Issue 23, Pages 24, 27

Published in Print: March 7, 2012, as ESEA Outlook Murky, Despite House Panel's Vote
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