Senators began work in earnest Wednesday on a bipartisan bill to replace No Child Left Behind by congratulating themselves on finally taking up legislation that is eight years overdue, and then unanimously passing an amendment to support school libraries.
That comity is likely to yield to more vigorous debate in the days ahead, but for the moment, the Senate was filled with kind words and cooperation.
“This bill actually passed out of the committee unanimously,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). “Imagine that, out of this place where we can’t even agree when to publish a report or what time to come to work.”
Republican leaders, intent on demonstrating that the GOP can get things done, repeatedly talked about how the education bill was among several recent examples of bipartisan harmony.
“This is a great bipartisan process that’s also produced one of 150 bills reported out of Senate committees this year,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the majority whip. “It’s another sign that the Senate is back in business for the American people.”
By a 98 to 0 vote, senators approved an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) that would allow states and school districts to use federal funds to develop school libraries and hire trained librarians.
“Knowing how to find and use information are essential skills for college, careers and life in general,” Reed said. “A good school library, staffed by a trained school librarian, is where students develop and hone these skills. In too many communities, libraries are neglected or considered an afterthought amidst the many other worthy education priorities competing for funding. But we know that school library programs can have a positive impact on student achievement.”
“This spring, The Washington Post ran articles on the inequitable access to school libraries in our nation’s capital,” Reed said, calling it a “stark example of one of the things we hope we can fix.”
Best-selling author James Patterson, who has given nearly $2 million to school libraries across the country, urged his fans to contact their senators and ask them to support the library amendment.
The Senate bill, written by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), would significantly shift power over public schools to states and local school districts, dismantling most of the federal accountability structure that has dictated policy to the country’s 100,000 public schools since 2002.
The bill maintains the current requirement that students in grades 3 to 8 be tested every year in math and reading and once in high school. But it lets states and districts decide what to do about the test results and whether or how to intervene if schools don’t meet state performance goals.
The legislation is striking for its prohibitions on federal power. Under the legislation, federal officials cannot influence state academic standards, require evaluations of teachers, impose any particular school improvement strategy or define a failing school.
The Obama administration has said it does not support the bill in its present form because it fails to require states to take action when a school repeatedly fails to meet academic goals or when 67 percent or fewer students graduate from high school on time.
“We can’t simply admire problems and label those schools, we have to take action,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday.
Debate on the bill is expected to last into next week.