Stark Partisan Split Persists on ESEA Renewal

By Alyson Klein — August 06, 2013 4 min read
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Precollegiate education legislation used to unite Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill—perhaps most prominently when Congress approved the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 by overwhelming bipartisan margins.

But it became clear that those days are over, at least for awhile, last month when the U.S. House of Representatives passed its GOP-authored reauthorization of the long-stalled Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the current iteration of the NCLB law. Not a single Democrat voted in favor of the measure, which was approved July 19 on a 221-207 vote.

The bill’s partisan roots are likely to complicate its path forward in the Democratically controlled U.S. Senate, where the education committee approved its own, very different, version of an ESEA rewrite back in June. What’s more, the Obama administration has threatened to veto the House GOP legislation, arguing that it would shortchange the poor and minority students the federal law was crafted to protect. That combination of factors makes it highly unlikely that the ESEA, which was supposed to be renewed in 2007, will be reauthorized before the end of the year.

The House Republicans’ bill would maintain the law’s signature testing schedule and its practice of breaking out student-achievement data by particular groups of students, such as English-language learners and students in special education. But, otherwise, it’s almost a complete U-turn, from a policy perspective, from the existing federal school accountability law. States and districts would still have to craft accountability plans, but they would get a lot more say on how they hold schools accountable for the progress of all students, including special populations.

Title I Portability

During floor consideration of the House bill, lawmakers also added an amendment by U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the majority leader, that would allow parents to take Title I dollars, long earmarked for disadvantaged schools, to any public school of their choice, including a charter. That proposal is likely to continue to fuel Democratic opposition to the bill.

During debate, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee and the author of the legislation, argued that his bill would give school districts much more predictability than the Obama administration’s current reauthorization solution: a series of some 40 waivers that offer states short-term relief from many of the NCLB law’s most stringent requirements.

“We can’t allow these political waivers or temporary fixes,” Mr. Kline said. “We can’t stand idly by and allow the administration to micromanage our classrooms.”

Meanwhile, Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, said the bill would turn back the clock to the pre-NCLB era, when the poor performance of disadvantaged students, English-language learners, and minority students often went unnoticed and unfixed, in his view.

“No Child Left Behind turned the lights on inside our nation’s schools,” said Mr. Miller, an architect of the NCLB law. “For the first time, parents could see whether their schools were actually teaching all students.” While he said the current law has “flaws,” he thinks the GOP rewrite would ultimately hurt accountability for traditionally overlooked students.

Some advocates for school districts, including the American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association, like the new leeway being offered by the House Republicans and are backing the measure.

But civil rights organizations, the business community, and urban districts are not on board. Those groups, including the Education Trust and the National Council of La Raza—both advocates for poor and minority students—are much more enthusiastic about a competing Democratic-sponsored measure, approved by the Senate education committee this spring.

Senate Alternative

The Senate legislation in large part mirrors the Obama administration’s vision for reauthorizing the law. It would require states to set ambitious achievement goals for all students, and for particular subgroups of students—a requirement that is also a hallmark of the waivers. The bill’s author, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is hoping to move the legislation to the floor of the Senate this year. But it hasn’t yet been scheduled for floor action. In a statement on the House bill, Sen. Harkin said the GOP measure “falls short” when it comes to holding states accountable for the success of disadvantaged children.

The House measure won support from some of the most conservative members of the House GOP caucus only after Rep. Kline acquiesced to the more conservative wing of his party on a policy he was personally committed to: requiring districts to use student outcomes to measure teacher effectiveness. Reps. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Steve Scalise, R-La., persuaded Mr. Kline to make such evaluations optional, not mandatory. And those conservative lawmakers were in lock step with the 3 million-member National Education Association on that issue.

The teacher-evaluation change brings the House bill much closer in line with legislation introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Senate education committee, who supports the idea of teacher evaluation tied to student outcomes, but doesn’t think it’s the federal government’s job to mandate it. And, in fact, Mr. Alexander released a statement calling the House GOP bill a “kissing cousin” of his own legislation, which has the support of all 10 Republican lawmakers on the Senate education committee.

A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Stark Partisan Split Persists on ESEA Renewal


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