Revamping education act looms as another divisive test for Congress

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

The House of Representatives is expected to vote Friday on an overhaul of No Child Left Behind that would greatly reduce the federal government’s role in K-12 education.

The law, enacted in 2001 in a bipartisan effort led by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and President George W. Bush, has been widely criticized for setting unrealistic goals.

Yet it also was seen as a landmark because it produced more information about individual student achievement, including information broken out for various groups such as Latinos, African Americans and low-income students. In exchange for federal funds, states had to improve or close failing schools.

What to do with those accountability measures is a key issue in the debate over how to revise the law.

The nation’s elementary and secondary education law expired in 2007, and efforts to update it since then have stumbled. Debate in the Republican-controlled House, likely to begin Thursday, is expected to show a deep partisan divide and maybe even some dissension between conservative and moderate Republicans.

The White House on Wednesday said it strongly opposes the House Republicans’ bill, called the Student Success Act, and that President Barack Obama would veto it if it reached his desk. Congress should change No Child Left Behind, but the House bill is a “significant step backwards in the effort to help our Nation’s children and their families prepare for their futures,” the Office of Management and Budget said in a statement.

The GOP legislation would eliminate more than 70 federal education programs, while allowing states to come up with their own accountability systems. It eliminates requirements that poorly performing schools use one of four models for change. It also repeals a requirement that schools hire “highly qualified” teachers, meaning those who have bachelor’s degrees and teaching credentials.

It retains a requirement that states give students achievement tests in reading and math and break down the results by subgroups. The bill also includes provisions to help charter schools.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, spoke about it on Tuesday as he and other members of Congress toured Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, where there were 1,840 applicants for 32 spots, chosen by lottery, last year.

“Part of the legislation will make it easier for good charter schools to replicate and expand,” he said. “We’ll have more parents who win the lottery.”

Some conservatives, however, may object to the bill, especially because it doesn’t include vouchers to use taxpayer dollars for private schools.

House Democrats are unlikely to vote for the Republican bill. Their competing vision, outlined by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., would give states more flexibility to hold schools accountable and improve them. However, it would retain the idea that poorly performing schools should be required to improve.

“Although the federal government cannot be expected to micromanage improvements to an individual school, nor should it try, it can and it should require action on behalf of students where willingness to act otherwise does not exist,” a summary of the Democrats’ proposal said.

The National School Boards Association, which represents school board members, liked the Republican bill in the House for reducing federal oversight. But it objected to its elimination of the requirement that states maintain their spending levels for K-12 education in order to qualify for federal dollars. The school boards group also opposed a freeze on federal funding at current sequestration levels for five years.

Critics said the bill doesn’t go far enough to help low-income students in the nation’s worst schools.

“This bill will harm students, especially those who are already the furthest behind,” Kate Tromble, director of legislative affairs at The Education Trust, a group that advocates shrinking the achievement gap, said in a statement. “By failing to demand that states set ambitious, but achievable goals and identify and intervene in their lowest-performing schools, this bill returns us to a time when states were free to ignore those students who struggled the most.”

The Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of large companies, also opposed the bill, arguing that it was not strong enough on school accountability.

“We need to ensure the high school diploma can be trusted by post-secondary educators and employers to mean that graduates are ready for college or workforce training and employment,” wrote its president, John Engler, a former Republican governor of Michigan, in a letter Wednesday to Kline.

Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the bill maintained transparency and cut “overreaching federal mandates,” but the federal government still would spend billions of dollars to help low-income and disabled students.

As long as the federal government is dispensing such large amounts of money, “then some language around how those funds are being spent is unavoidable,” he said.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee passed its own version of an overhaul in June, based on views of majority Democrats. It would provide more flexibility, but keep federal oversight. Republicans on the committee offered an alternative that reduces the federal role.

Email: rschoof@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @reneeschoof

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