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Can an NCLB Rewrite Still Happen This Year?

By Alyson Klein — March 02, 2015 3 min read
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House Republican leaders delayed a vote on rewriting the No Child Left Behind Act Friday. So is an NCLB update all-dead for the year, or just mostly dead?

As any fan of the 1987 movie The Princess Bride knows, there’s a big difference between “mostly dead” and “all dead.” After all, you can go from being “mostly dead” to storming the castle in a matter of minutes, as long as you have a chocolate-coated miracle pill from Miracle Max.

If we’re in “all dead” territory, there’s nothing left to do except go through the bill’s clothes and look for loose change. (Okay, now I’ve probably stretched the pop culture reference as far as it will possibly go.) See what I’m talking about here.

The case for all-dead: If House leaders are going to get a bill through, they may need to make it even more conservative than the one the chamber was slated to consider Friday. And the White House really, really hated the previous bill, particularly what it saw as a lack of accountability (and funding) for poor and minority kids. So it’s hard to imagine President Obama would sign anything that went even further to the right.

Could House GOP leaders decide instead to write a more moderate bill that can get some support from Democrats to make up for the lost Republicans? Don’t count on it. For the past several years, House leaders have been reluctant to pass anything that doesn’t have the support of the “majority of the majority"—meaning most Republicans. And it’s hard to imagine they would make an exception for an NCLB rewrite. Rick Hess does a great job of explaining it all in this blog post.

The case for mostly dead: Things may have fallen apart in the House, but as of this past weekend at least, the Senate was very much trying to push forward.

In fact, a number of advocates said that staff for Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., who are trying to hash out a bipartisan compromise, worked over the weekend to try to get a deal on Title I, the most important part of the bill. As of this weekend, they were aiming to share it with the lead lawmakers, and then the rest of the education committee as early as this week, with a possible markup (committee consideration) of the bill as early as next week, or the week after.

To be sure, the politics here are tricky. It was always going to be hard to get most Democrats to support a bill that the civil rights community didn’t like. Alexander seems to want to shift most, if not all, accountability decisions to the state level, and that may not fly with civil rights groups.

What’s more, pushback from House conservatives is going to make Senate GOP lawmakers, particularly those associated with the tea party, like Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., even more suspicious of a Senate bipartisan compromise that will almost definitely be to the left of the House bill.

But Alexander and Murray are well-regarded within their parties, and they’re both known as deal makers, so if anyone can make a miracle pill—er, bill—they can. Since Alexander is the chairman, more of the responsibilty will likely rest on his shoulders, and he’s a respected hand in GOP circles.

What’s more, it’s possible that the House opposition had almost as much to do with conservative anger over Homeland Security as dissatisfaction with the education bill, which is nearly identical to the version that passed the chamber back in 2013. If House leaders can bring it back up in a few weeks, and the Senate moves forward, an NCLB update may be back in business.

Either way, though, it’s worth paying attention to Senate action. Even if a bipartisan Alexander-Murray compromise never makes it over the legislative finish line, it could help inform an eventual deal on an NCLB update this year, or in 2017 or beyond.

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