For the first time since 2001, members of Congress began floor debate today in the House on a comprehensive bill to update the country’s main federal education law.
“It’s been 12 years — 12 years,” said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chief sponsor of the “Student Success Act.” “Neither party has been able to bring legislation to the floor in either body. We’ve been in a situation for years now where the Congress has abdicated completely its responsibility.”
But it also marked the first time in recent memory that the House was debating an education bill that was partisan in nature, written by Republicans without any support from Democrats and with a veto threat issued Wednesday by President Obama.
“This is a huge step outside the mainstream consensus,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who is leading the opposition and mockingly referred to Kline’s bill as the “Letting Students Down Act.”
A final vote is expected Friday.
Member after member rose to talk about the importance of quality public education, but they offered vastly different views about whether the bill on the floor would achieve it. Two lawmakers from Nevada, Republican Joe Heck and Democrat Dina Titus, said the bill was terrific and terrible, respectively.
The GOP bill would update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, created by Congress in 1965 to distribute federal dollars primarily to help children who are poor, disabled or English language learners. Those dollars represent about 10 percent of funding for public schools; local communities and states provide the rest.
“It is fundamentally a civil rights law,” Miller said. “This bill guts funding for public education, abdicates the federal government’s responsibility to make sure each child has an equal right to a quality education.”
The current version of the law, known as No Child Left Behind, expired in 2007, but Congress has struggled to agree on an update.
Kline’s bill would sharply shrink the federal role in K-12 public schools and mark a departure from No Child Left Behind, which had significantly expanded federal authority in local school matters.
“We have sought to recalibrate the federal role, undoing the excesses of the past,” said Kline, whose bill is supported by the National School Boards Association.
Several Republicans said they would have liked to delete the federal government’s involvement altogether. “Many of my Republican colleagues and I feel the federal government should be out of education,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), adding that the bill was “a step in the right direction.”
No Child Left Behind sets conditions and requirements for every public school receiving federal funds to educate poor students and those with special needs. The law defines academic progress and stipulates sanctions for schools that don’t meet that progress. It also dictates specific improvement strategies that the states must adopt for their weakest schools. Underpinning the law is a belief that states that receive billions of federal dollars each year must be made accountable to Washington.
The GOP bill takes a different tack, returning power to the states. It would retain the No Child Left Behind requirements that schools test students annually in math and reading from grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.
But states would set their own academic standards, decide whether schools are meeting them and determine what — if anything — to do about underperforming schools. The bill would delete a provision known as “maintenance of effort,” which currently ensures that states use federal dollars in addition to, and not as a replacement for, state and local dollars to help low-income, minority, disabled students and English learners.
And it would also would freeze education spending at sequester rates instead of restoring federal dollars to pre-sequester levels, which means public schools would receive $1 billion less next year.
Democrats say Kline’s bill would gut education dollars for poor students at a time when a record numbers of U.S. children are living in poverty, weaken the accountability of schools serving low-income, minority and special-education students and allow states to ignore their worst schools instead of improve them.
“This bill has an accountability hole so big, in most districts, an entire school bus of kids will fall through it,” said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.).
Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.), the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress, said he was opposed to the bill because “it reverses decades of supports and protections for students with disabilities.”
An unusual coalition of business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, have joined teachers unions, civil rights groups and advocates for the disabled to oppose the GOP bill.
A series of Republican lawmakers railed against waivers that the Obama administration issued to 39 states and the District of Columbia that exempts them from some of the most punitive aspects of No Child Left Behind. The administration began issuing the waivers in 2011, after mounting complaints from governors and school boards that No Child Left Behind was unrealistic and that schools would not be able to meet one requirement in particular — that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.
In the absence of an updated law, Education Secretary Arne Duncan began giving states waivers in exchange for their agreement to embrace certain education policy changes favored by Obama, including new academic standards known as the Common Core.
The GOP bill forbids the department of education from using waivers or grants to influence state education policy.
“This bill makes certain the secretary of education does not have the power to force, in a a dictatorial way, the Common Core,” said Rep. Aaron Schock (R- Ill.).
In the Senate, Democrats passed their own education bill in the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that would maintain much of the federal education oversight. Most observers say it is unlikely that the two chambers will reach agreement on a compromise in this Congress.