Senate committee approves bill updating federal education law

On a party line vote, a Senate committee approved a bill Wednesday to update the country’s main federal education law by erasing some of its most punitive aspects.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions voted 12 to 10 on the bill filed by chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), with Democrats defeating nearly every amendment Republicans offered.

The two parties have been at loggerheads over the appropriate role of the federal government in K-12 public education.

Democrats said the federal government should be able to hold schools accountable for providing access to education for all children, regardless of race, income, ability or other factors.

“What we’re asking for is a system of shared responsibility with states and local school districts,” Harkin said. The federal government must act as a backstop to prevent states from “returning to old ways in which certain groups of students did not have access,” he said.

But Republicans argued that the federal government has been too heavy handed — especially under the Obama administration — and must cede control to states and communities, which they say are best able to provide for the needs of local children.

“It’s not about educating — it’s about who’s in charge,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). “And this bill continues to focus on making Washington in charge of K-12 education, not a state, not a district, not a superintendent and certainly not a teacher.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the committee, offered the GOP alternative bill, which was defeated in a party line vote Tuesday. “We have some profound differences,” Alexander said.

Democrats and Republicans agreed on one thing: They both 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 governors to school board members have been asking Congress to rewrite the law and replace the provision. No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law in 2002 by President George W. Bush, 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 of No Child Left Behind. 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.

“This isn’t right! This isn’t right!” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), as he held up a three-inch-thick binder that detailed education reforms to which Kansas agreed to get a waiver. “We should not have to put up with this to get a waiver!”

Harkin’s bill retains a central requirement of the law — that states test students in math and reading annually from grades three through eight and once in high school. States would be required to make public those scores and the performance of students by race, disability and other categories. Those provisions are in the current law. But Harkin’s bill would lessen the emphasis on standardized tests by letting states use portfolios or projects to assess student performance. And his bill would allow states to come up with strategies for improvement, except in cases of the worst-performing schools. Under current law, states must choose from among four “turnaround” strategies prescribed by the federal government.

Alexander, a former Tennessee governor who served as education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, called the Democrats’ version “congested with federal mandates.”

Republicans want to leave to the states decisions about how to measure student achievement, improve schools, and gauge the performance of schools and teachers. They also want to sharply limit the authority of the education secretary.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), offered an amendment that would have allowed federal dollars to be used by poor children to pay for private school tuition. His plan was defeated by a 14 to 8 vote with two Republicans, Sens. Mark Kirk (Illinois) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), joining Democrats.

It is unclear when the full Senate will take up Harkin’s bill. “We’ll see you on the floor with this bill, uh, sometime,” Harkin said.

Across the Capitol, House Republicans have filed their own bill to replace No Child Left Behind, without any support from Democrats. That legislation is slated for committee debate July 19. Many observers think it is highly unlikely that Democrats and Republicans in both houses will come together to pass a comprehensive bill this Congress.

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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