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How We Got Here: A Trip Down NCLB Reauthorization’s Memory Lane

By Alyson Klein — January 09, 2015 4 min read
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Congress is getting very serious about reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act really, really soon, with draft discussion language from Senate Republicans going out to other committee members as early as next week. Upcoming hearings in the Senate could touch on testing, state innovation, and teachers.

But this is definitely not lawmakers’ first rodeo. Here’s a look at previous attempts at reauthorization, where the debate stood—and why the legislation never made it to prime-time.

House education committee 2007: Then-chairman (and original NCLB author) Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. Howard P. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., put forth a “discussion draft” on NCLB reauthorization. It would have allowed states to use growth models to measure student progress as opposed to comparing different groups of students to one another.

And it would have allowed states to target different types of interventions to schools with different levels of need. (Sound familiar, waiver states?) It also would have put in place a “local assessment” pilot project, and allowed states to use multiple measures, some not based on tests, to demonstrate student achievement.

(How do we remember all this? Believe it or not, my EdWeek colleague, Stephen Sawchuk of Teacher Beat fame, who covered the bill for a different publication, kept his copy of the draft. It’s been in a filing cabinet all these years.)

The big issues under debate: No one really understood the multiple-measures thing. And the local assessment pilot project was a no-go from the jump for civil rights groups, who may get the chance to dust off that argument this go-round. Plus, school administrators and unions were not thrilled that the bill would have made big changes to the Title I “comparability” loophole.

What ultimately doomed the bill: The teachers’ unions didn’t like that it would have offered competitive grants to districts that wanted to experiment with performance pay plans based in part on student test scores. (If only they coulda known what was coming with Race to the Top and waivers.) And the Bush administration thought it was way too soft on accountability. In fact, then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings told me a year later that she was glad reauthorization didn’t happen because she hoped that the next set of political players would care more about accountability. (I wonder if she’s eating her words now that annual assessments could be excised from the law.)

How far did it get? Just a committee hearing. No markup. No official introduction even.

House Education Committee/Senate Education Committee 2011 and 2012: Two bills this time, one in each chamber. The House bill was decidedly partisan and the Senate’s was bipartisan (but just barely). The House bill, authored by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who is still chairman of the panel, would have majorly rolled back the federal footprint in education (but would have kept NCLB’s testing schedule in place.) And it would have required districts to develop teacher evaluations based on test-scores (a personal priority for Kline.) The Senate bill, which was crafted by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., also initially included evaluations, plus required states to target serious interventions to their worst schools, and also to schools with big achievement gaps. But it didn’t require specific state-level student achievement goals.

The big issues under debate: Teacher evaluation, which was ultimately jettisoned from the bill, thanks to Democrats who sided with teachers’ unions ... and you guessed it, Republican lawmakers who wanted a smaller federal footprint. Super-dramatic school improvement strategies were also tossed (thanks to the same coalition, essentially.) The lack of student-achievement goals was huge and earned the bill a major thumbs-down from civil rights groups.

Why the bills didn’t make it to prime-time: Lack of interest in debating the issue in the House, and fears on the part of the administration of what might happen to Harkin’s bill if it advanced in the Senate. Plus, the Education Department was really excited about waivers.

How far did they get? Kline’s bill passed out of his committee, with only Republican support. And the Harkin-Enzi bill passed, with just three GOP lawmakers in tow, holding their noses all the way. Nothing made it to the floor.

Senate education committee/Full U.S. House of Representatives 2013: Two bills, again. The Senate version was Democrats only, no longer bipartisan, in part because student achievement goals were back in. (Harkin heard an earful from disabilities groups about the fact that they had been tossed.) Evaluations were in, but they didn’t have to be used for personnel purposes. Meanwhile, Kline’s 2013 bill looked a lot like his 2012 legislation, although lawmakers eventually added language that would have allowed Title I dollars to follow students to their schools of their choice.

The big issues under debate: Teacher evaluation, yet again. Kline had to jettison the language to get support from House conservatives. And House leaders managed to keep a lid on debate over the Common Core standards. (Which probably won’t be as easy this time around.)

Why it never made it to primetime: The bill didn’t advance in the Senate mostly because the Obama administration didn’t want it to, a decision they are probably regretting big-time right about now.

The theme of this little trip down memory lane? Over the past decade, the debate has moved in one direction. We’ve been drifting further and further away from the idea of a strong federal role in accountability that was at the center of the original No Child Left Behind Act.

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