Republican-led House committee passes new federal education bill

A Republican-controlled House committee Wednesday approved a new version of the country’s main education law that would sharply shrink the federal role in K-12 public schools.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce voted along party lines, 23 to 16, on a bill to replace No Child Left Behind, the George W. Bush-era law that marked a significant expansion of federal authority in local school matters.

In passing the bill, Republicans took a clear turn away from Bush’s philosophy that states receiving billions of dollars each year in federal aid should be accountable to Washington.

The House action comes after Democrats in the Senate passed their own bill in the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that would maintain much of the federal oversight of public education.

The question is whether House Republicans and Senate Democrats can find consensus on a single bill, something many observers say seems unlikely.

Current federal education law sets conditions and requirements for every public school receiving federal funds to educate poor students and those with special needs.

Under the House bill written by the education panel’s chairman, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), states would be able to set their own academic standards, decide whether schools are meeting them and decide what to do about underperforming schools.

States now can create academic standards, but the law defines academic progress and stipulates sanctions for schools that fail to make that progress. In addition, federal law dictates the improvement strategies that states must adopt for their weakest schools.

Kline said his legislation would “cut through the dizzying maze of mandates, reporting requirements and strict funding rules that make it difficult, if not impossible, for states and districts to improve performance and narrow achievement gaps.”

His bill would preserve the requirement that states test students in math and reading annually from grades three through eight and once in high school, make those test scores public and show how certain subgroups — sorted by race, poverty and English ability — perform.

Democrats argued that Kline’s version takes the pressure off states to turn around the worst-performing schools.

“This Republican bill goes from closing the achievement gap to showing the achievement gap and just hoping someone does something,” said Rep. Jared Polis (Colo.). “Some of these schools have a dropout rate of 50 percent. Unless there is impetus for action, local inertia continues the status quo. The key here is to give the local superintendent flexibility to do what works, but not the flexibility to do nothing. And sometimes, nothing is the easiest course of action.”

Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on Kline’s committee, offered an alternative bill that was defeated on a party-line vote.

Democrats and Republicans agree on one thing: They want to erase the most unpopular aspect of No Child Left Behind, the provision that requires schools to make progress toward all students being proficient in math and reading by 2014. If they fail to meet benchmarks, schools are subject to steadily escalating punitive measures.

That goal of proficiency by 2014 came to be widely seen as unrealistic, and officials from statehouses to school boards have been asking Congress to rewrite the law and replace the provision.

No Child Left Behind, which Bush signed into law in 2002, was due for reauthorization in 2007.

With Congress unable to agree on a new law, the Obama administration in 2011 began issuing waivers to states to free them from the requirements. In exchange for waivers, states were required to adopt President Obama’s preferred education reforms.

That outraged Republicans on Capitol Hill, who accused the president of meddling in public schools, an arena with a long history of local control.

In a specific swipe at the Obama administration, Kline’s bill would prohibit the Department of Education from influencing decisions made by states regarding academic standards.

In issuing waivers to No Child Left Behind and through ground rules for states who wanted to compete in Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s national grant competition, the Department of Education required states to adopt “college and career-ready” academic standards in reading and math for K-12.

As a result, over two years, 45 states and the District opted to implement the Common Core standards, which are academic expectations for every grade level. The standards do not dictate curriculum, but set standards for the knowledge and skills that students should possess by the end of each grade, regardless of where they live.

Critics have slammed the Obama administration’s role, saying it coerced states to adopt the standards.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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