GOP in Driver's Seat as Congress Tackles NCLB Rewrite

House bill on move; talks start in Senate

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For the last three weeks, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have continued to plow ahead with efforts to update the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Republican lawmakers are in the driver's seat in both chambers where Title I portability, testing, and accountability continue to be the most hotly debated policy issues.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, GOP members on the education committee approved a rewrite to the federal K-12 law, which they've titled the Student Success Act, on a party-line vote Feb. 11, while Democrats blasted the measure for rolling back protections for the most disadvantaged students—the civil rights underpinning of the law.

Across the Capitol, Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., reversed course and began negotiating with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the committee, to broker a bipartisan NCLB overhaul. The move was a marked departure from his initial strategy to push ahead with a Republican discussion draft, which was crafted without Democratic input.

Meanwhile, education stakeholders are scrambling to keep up with the feverish pace. Several of the major players, such as teachers' unions, are organizing grass-roots lobbying efforts and media ad-buys for this week's congressional recess when lawmakers will be back in their home districts.

Farthest along at this point is the House Republicans' measure, which would significantly curtail the footprint of the federal government in K-12 schools. It is set to be considered by the full House when Congress comes back from its weeklong recess the week of Feb. 24.

Among many other things, the bill would allow Title I money for low-income students to follow them to the public school of their choice, including charter schools and consolidate or eliminate more than 65 federal education programs. The bill would also make Title II, which deals with teacher preparation and development, and Title IV, which covers school climate issues, into transferable block grants.

The daylong markup process Feb. 11 did not alter the bill significantly, but it did preview at least two policy debates that will get intense attention when the bill hits the chamber floor: Title I portability and testing. An amendment from Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., would have further altered Title I portability and allowed those federal dollars to be used to pay for private schools.

"In America, if you can afford that choice then you already have it," said Mr. Messer. "The only real question is: What are you going to do for those who don't have that choice?"

Controversial Proposal

Democrats blasted the proposal, arguing that it would take money away from the public school system, stifle accountability, and be a slippery slope to a private-voucher system. Several Democrats noted that in states with similar allowances in place, the funding often goes to students who are already enrolled in private schools instead of helping those in failing schools find new schools.

Allowing Title I dollars to flow to private schools is controversial even for Republicans, and it's thought that including such language in the bill would jeopardize its chances of passage. In the end, Mr. Messer withdrew the amendment.

Meanwhile, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., offered an amendment that would allow states to audit the number and quality of tests given to students annually and, if warranted, eliminate those that are repetitive or of low-quality.

"Too much time is lost for preparing for standardized assessments, and the high-stakes nature of those tests inject anxiety into our classrooms," said Ms. Bonamici.

Her amendment was based on a bill she introduced that has bipartisan backing. But Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., said that while he agreed with the premise of the amendment, he didn't like that it would authorize additional funding and create a new program. He also said that by block-granting a majority of the funding in the NCLB rewrite, states would be free to audit tests on their own.

Like Mr. Messer, Ms. Bonamici withdrew her amendment before it received a vote in hopes that tweaking language would make it more appealing to more Republicans during floor debate.

In the Senate, Mr. Alexander's announcement that he would work closely with Sen. Murray in crafting a way forward comes after weeks of him saying that an NCLB update doesn't have to start with a bipartisan product.

He made his about-face amid growing pressure—and the fact that his strategy would have required him to woo at least eight Democrats in order to cobble together 60 votes to move the bill through the Senate and on to a conference.

"Our staffs will begin working today with each other and with the staffs of other senators on the committee," they said in a joint statement on Feb. 6. "We expect to succeed."

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Still, the two need to find common ground on a long list of policy differences, which include what to do about Title I portability; whether to include early-childhood education language; how much control over accountability to give to states; what testing should look like; and which programs to keep and which to consolidate.

Senate Timetable

Mr. Alexander said in an interview last week that he would like to finish negotiations "as soon as possible," a timeline that jibes with Ms. Murray's vision. In a separate interview last week, Ms. Murray said that the two have plenty of time to hammer out a deal.

"The advantage of doing it sooner rather than later is that we have a better chance of getting it to the floor," said Mr. Alexander, who would like to have a bill ready in March.

"If we wait too long, why, we'll get behind the appropriations bills, we'll get behind the budget, and it will be the fall."

Vol. 34, Issue 21, Page 16

Published in Print: February 18, 2015, as GOP in Driver's Seat as Congress Tackles NCLB Rewrite
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