The U.S. House of Representatives wrestled last week to approve a Republican-backed bill to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, tussling for two days over sharply differing partisan paths toward federal education policy.
The long-anticipated debate on the House GOP measure, dubbed the Student Success Act, included consideration of more than 40 amendments touching on hot-button issues, including testing and school choice—and one that would have replaced the entire bill with a Democratic version of the federal K-12 law.
Republicans touted their measure for seeking to significantly roll back the federal government’s role in education, but Democrats blasted it for flying in the face of the original civil rights-focused intent of the law.
After wrangling over whether to eliminate the current law’s annual testing requirements, to allow school districts to use locally designed tests, and to ensure federal education dollars are directed to the most disadvantaged students, the House on Friday postponed a final vote on the measure. The delay coincided with an unrelated debate involving funding for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, but also amid a backlash among House conservatives unhappy with elements of the ESEA reauthorization measure.
In the U.S. Senate, meanwhile, top Republican and Democratic education leaders continue working to hammer out their own version of an ESEA reauthorization bill.
Ahead of the Feb. 26 and Feb. 27 House debate, the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, two powerful conservative lobby organizations, blasted out emails to House Republicans in opposition to the bill. They warned that if members voted in favor of the measure, it would count against them in a scoring rubric the organizations use to rate which members are most faithful to conservative principles and the GOP.
The groups’ problem with the NCLB overhaul proposal is that it isn’t conservative enough.
Among other things, the groups wanted to see a bill that knocks the federal government entirely out of education policy, which they view as strictly a state and local responsibility. They also hoped to see provisions in the bill that would have allowed federal funds for low-income students to be used at private schools.
Since education leaders in the House and Senate first announced that overhauling the NCLB law would be a top priority, the debate over whether to maintain the current law’s annual testing requirement has garnered the most attention.
During the debate last week, members of the House adopted by voice vote an amendment from Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., that would allow school districts to use locally designed tests in lieu of state tests.
“Having this choice can only benefit our nation’s schools as they seek to provide quality education in a transparent manner,” said Mr. Goodlatte, adding that he worked with the chairman of the Senate education committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and his staff to craft the language.
The idea is something that state chiefs have pushed for, and Sen. Alexander’s own draft bill to rewrite the NCLB law also includes a local testing option.
Mr. Goodlatte said he anticipated that school districts would only use local tests “in limited circumstances,” and emphasized that providing a local test option would not decrease transparency.
But Democrats pushed back hard on that notion during the debate, arguing that allowing districts to craft their own, home-baked assessments could cause confusion and make it difficult to measure one district’s students against another’s.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrat on the House education committee, called state assessments “a crucial tool for monitoring and ensuring protection of civil rights,” and said that local tests “would not allow for the [accurate] comparisons” of student achievement within a state.
Mr. Goodlatte’s amendment had backing from both the Heritage Foundation and the 3.1 million member National Education Association, an unusual alliance that might explain why, despite objecting to the proposal during debate, Rep. Scott did not ask for a recorded vote.
A second highly anticipated testing amendment, which was also adopted by a voice vote, belonged to Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore. The provision would allow states to use federal funds to audit the number and quality of tests they use, and eliminate any deemed repetitive or of low quality.
“Too much time is lost prepping for assessments,” Ms. Bonamici said. “This amendment will help reduce the testing burden … and recognizes that a one-size-fits-all policy to address testing won’t work.”
“As my North Star, what I look for in a successful reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and replacing No Child Left Behind with a federal education law that makes sense is three-fold: We must get accountability right, we must identify and replicate what works well in public education, and we must change what doesn’t work in public education.”
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.
“This legislation will take definitive steps to limit the [U.S. Secretary of Education’s] authority by prohibiting him or her from coercing states to adopt academic standards, like the common core. The Student Success Act protects state and local autonomy over decisions in the classroom.”
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.
“Every child deserves the absolute best education. What is at issue is how that should be accomplished. Is the federal government better at ensuring our kids receive the best education, or do we do that better at the local level?”
Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga.
“Many years ago. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks sparked a little light and a little hope in me. Their actions taught me how important it is to tear down barriers and invest in the future of each and every child. This bill turns back the clock on progress. ... [It] puts the hardest-hit and the most-in-need on the chopping block. We don’t want to go back; we want to go forward.”
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ala.
A testing amendment that was not offered during the debate, despite being backed by a bipartisan group of 10 members, would have replaced the annual testing requirement with grade-span testing, in which students are tested once in grades 3-5, once in grades 6-8, and once in high school.
Debate over various funding issues in the bill struck at the heart of the philosophical differences in how Republicans and Democrats prefer to approach the federal role in education.
While Democrats demanded more accountability of federal funds to ensure they’re being used to help the most disadvantaged students, Republicans opted to trust states to make the best financial decisions for themselves.
“It simply goes back to the status quo of current law that ties the hands of state officials in budgeting,” said Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind. “We need to stop thinking we know what’s best for states, and that includes telling them how much to spend on education.”
The bill would allow Title I dollars for low-income students to follow students to the public school of their choice, including charter schools. The measure would also eliminate maintenance of effort, which requires states and school districts to keep their own spending at a certain level in order to tap federal dollars.
The committee that creates the rules for how bills are debated did not approve for debate an amendment from Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., that would have allowed Title I money to also flow to private schools, or an amendment from Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., that would have eliminated the Title I portability language entirely.
But the committee did allow debate on an amendment from Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, that would have required states to demonstrate that the level of state and local funding for education remains constant from year to year, despite the elimination of the maintenance-of-effort provision. “The receipt of federal funds should not be used to replace the investment of states in education,” explained Ms. Fudge, who eventually withdrew her amendment, saying that even if it were adopted it wouldn’t make the Republican bill any more palatable.
In the Senate, for weeks now Mr. Alexander and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the education committee, have been negotiating in hopes of producing a bipartisan measure that pleases both sides of the aisle.
The two have some major policy disagreements to overcome, including what accountability should look like, whether to make Title I dollars portable, and whether to include new provisions that address early-childhood education.
Ahead in Senate
Despite Mr. Alexander having worked with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to tentatively reserve time for a floor debate in March, as of Friday of last week negotiations were still ongoing.
Mr. Alexander has been emphatic that he would like to move forward as quickly as possible in order to capitalize on the carved-out floor time before the Senate calendar becomes too busy and the NCLB rewrite gets pushed behind more pressing pieces of legislation, such as funding bills.
Should the two successfully craft a measure that they’re able to usher through the Senate, the bill will likely look significantly different than a House measure. At that point, a new round of negotiations will begin between leaders in the House, the Senate, and the White House.
A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as House Wrestles With Bill to Rewrite No Child Left Behind Act