Efforts to Overhaul NCLB Law Inch Ahead in Congress

Talks continue in Senate, despite setback in House

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Congressional efforts to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, are inching forward in Congress, despite recent setbacks in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee and author of the legislation in that chamber, said his endeavor to give the federal K-12 law a much-needed facelift is by no means over, and he hopes a vote on the bill will be rescheduled for this week. Both the chairman and the ranking member of the education committee in the U.S. Senate, who are negotiating in hopes of drafting a bipartisan measure, announced last week that they plan to clear a proposal through their committee in mid-April.

Leaders in both chambers had identified fixing the widely unpopular law as an early priority in the newly minted Republican Congress. They hope to both overhaul the NCLB's laws outdated policies and diminish the influence of the federal government by superseding the Obama administration's waivers to states.

But the pace of legislative progress slowed earlier this month after Republicans in the House were forced to abandon a scheduled vote on a reauthorization bill amid waning support from members of their own party.

While it's still early in the year, Rep. Kline and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is leading the negotiations in the Senate, had hoped by now to be making steady strides toward negotiating their measures with the White House.

As the legislative calendar begins to fill up with other high-level priorities, including a slate of upcoming spending bills, the delayed timetables in both chambers could diminish the chances lawmakers are able to give the ESEA for its long-awaited renewal.

"There is definitely a sweet spot as far as timing where an ESEA deal could happen," said Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners. "You can either go too quickly and things fall apart, or you go too slow and you're getting into the appropriations bills and the 2016 presidential election. I think we're in that sweet spot right now."

House Inaction

Plans for a Feb. 27th floor vote on a Republican-backed rewrite of the NCLB law in the House were foiled amid a larger squabble over funding for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that resulted in the proposal being withdrawn.

But Rep. Kline said the collapse in support was also a result of a post on an anti-Common Core State Standards blog that went viral. The post falsely stated that the bill would force states to continue using the common core, which caused some members of the GOP to withdraw their initial support for the legislation.

The post wasn't the only expression of opposition. Both the Heritage Action Fund and the Club for Growth, two powerful conservative organizations, blasted out emails urging Republicans to block the bill because it was not conservative enough, in their view.

As it stands, Rep. Kline's bill has not been rescheduled for a vote, despite his hope that it would be back on the floor for debate this week. That didn't stop him from attempting to correct any misconceptions about the bill.

On March 9, his education committee distributed a fact sheet touting its conservative qualities, noting that it eliminates "69 ineffective, duplicative, and unnecessary programs" and "programs the secretary of education has used to coerce states to adopt his preferred policies." The bill also protects "the autonomy of religious schools, private schools, and home schools," the fact sheet said.

Senate Action

Meanwhile, Sen. Alexander, the chairman of the Senate education committee, and ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., announced last week that they were continuing to make headway behind the scenes to craft an overhaul of the law that might be acceptable to both parties.

"We are making significant progress in our negotiations. We are aiming to consider and mark up legislation to fix the law during the week of April 13th," the two said in a joint statement.

That breathed new life into the prospects of updating the law, the chances of which had begun to look bleak after nearly three weeks of no news.

Sens. Alexander and Murray did not elaborate on the specifics of how—or even if—they had closed significant education policy gaps that existed between them on several issues. Those gaps include whether to maintain the current law's annual testing requirement and how to use the resulting data in an accountability system; whether to allow Title I dollars to follow low-income students to the schools of their choice; and whether to include early-childhood-education language in the bill.

It was rumored that the two would begin floating their bill to committee members this week for feedback ahead of the April markup.

Timetable Concerns

Before the Senate negotiations began, Sen. Alexander had planned to move through the process quickly, using a conservative draft that was largely based on a bill he wrote in 2013. When that was still the plan, he had worked with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to pre-emptively reserve floor time for debate on the measure for some time in March.

With that initial strategy—and timeline—out the window, Sen. Alexander will have to walk a tightrope to shape a bill that's conservative enough that Senate leaders will want to schedule it for debate, and one that can charm enough Republicans and Democrats in order to clear the Senate's 60-vote threshold for avoiding a filibuster.

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"We don't know what will be in a bipartisan plan, but if Murray supports it, I think you might have more trouble with the Republican caucus holding together than the Democratic caucus," Ms. Hyslop said. "That's just a reflection of what we saw in the House on a smaller scale."

It's also unclear whether Sen. McConnell would even allow debate on the measure if the House hasn't yet cleared its own version.

"The ultimate question comes down to whether a Republican-controlled Congress wants to pass a bill that the president can sign leading up to a big presidential election," Ms. Hyslop added. "Areas of compromise may not win you votes."

Vol. 34, Issue 24, Page 22

Published in Print: March 18, 2015, as Congressional Efforts to Overhaul NCLB Law Inch Ahead
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