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House Leaders Officially Postpone Vote on NCLB Rewrite

By Alyson Klein — February 27, 2015 4 min read
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If’s official: After hours of speculation Friday, House leaders decided to postpone a vote on a bill to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act, amid conservative opposition.

The measure, which was slated to pass the House Friday, came under fire from conservative organizations, including the the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, two powerful lobby organizations that worried the bill didn’t go far enough in scaling back the federal role in education.

House leaders came up short on Republican support for the measure—and they weren’t able to look to the other side of the aisle for help. Democrats have lambasted the legislation for taking away funding from poor and minority students. More background on all that here.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the sponsor of the bill, attributed the delay in part to the need to pass a short-term measure financing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. But when pressed on whether or not Republican leaders had sufficient support for the NCLB rewrite bill, he said, “I don’t know...I know it is close. I hope we have enough votes to go forward.”

The measure would keep in place the NCLB law’s testing schedule, which calls for students to take tests in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Lawmakers have been debating the bill since Thursday, and adopted an amendment that would allow districts to use local tests in place of state assessments, a big shift from NCLB. (More background on the changes made here.)

Local testing is something that Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, also included in his own draft NCLB rewrite bill, released earlier this year. Alexander is now negotiating a bipartisan bill with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

House leaders, on the other hand, were poised to pass a partisan rewrite of the law, similar to the measure the the chamber agreed to in 2013.

But, in order to appeal to moderate Republicans and not turn off education organizations, Kline and House leaders opted not to move forward on an amendment that would have allowed federal Title I dollars for disadvantaged students to follow children to the private school of their choice. (Right now, there’s language in the legislation allowing Title I dollars to be used for public school choice.) And leaders also eschewed a proposed amendment that would have let states opt out of any sort of federally-directed accountability altogether—but still tap federal education dollars.

Michael A. Needham, the executive director of Heritage Action for America, made it clear what changes he would like to see.

“Moving forward, a new bill should eliminate programs and mandates, allow for full Title I portability, and enable states to opt out. Not only would that type of bill draw a clear contrast with the progressives’ failed big-government education agenda, but it would remove archaic obstacles that have prevented true opportunity for all,” he said in a statement.

Back in 2013, Kline was willing to jettison a personal priority—a requirement for districts to tie teacher evaluation in part to test scores—in order to gain support for a very similar NCLB rewrite bill. Would he be willing to do that this time around?

“I am not conceding that anything needs to change,” Kline said, in an interview.

No official word on how long the delay will be, but Kline said in a statement later that he hopes the House will “have an opportunity to finish [the bill] soon.”

Part of the problem here is timing, sources say. Conservative Republicans are angry at House leaderships’s handling of immigration legislation and they are taking their frustration out on what some see as a relatively moderate education bill, sources say.

It’s possible that Kline and other leaders will find the votes to pass the bill next week, or soon after—but if they don’t, the bid to update the NCLB law this year could be in serious trouble.

“Having it die, or having a [long] delay essentially kills [NCLB] this Congress,” said Noelle Ellerson, the associate director for policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association, which supported the bill despite having some qualms about pieces of it.

It’s especially frustrating, she added, because there is plenty of room for agreement between Republicans and Democrats, both of whom want to give states and districts more control over K-12 policy.

“There’s far more common ground than there is different ground,” she said.

If efforts to rewrite the law falter, it would mean that states would have to continue to live under U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s stop-gap solution: A series of (increasingly unpopular) waivers from parts of NCLB law, which call for states to adopt certain education reform priorities (like high standards) in order to get flexibility from some of the law’s mandates (like setting aside federal funds for tutoring and school choice.)

The bill is “still alive, but next week will be very telling about its long term prospects,” said Vic Klatt, a former long-time aide to Republicans on the House education committee, now a principal with Penn Hill, a government relations organization. “In the end, House Republicans are going to have to decide whether they want to pass a bill that - while maybe not perfect - is clearly an improvement to NCLB from their point of view; or they can do nothing and let the President and Federal government have unchecked control over education policy for the remainder of his term. Will be interesting to see what they choose.”

Or, as another source put it, “Really, House Rs? You like Arne Duncan that much??”

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