Congress is set to begin debate this week on revisions to No Child Left Behind, stoking hopes that lawmakers could finally be headed toward a deal to rewrite the nation’s main federal K-12 education law — eight years after it officially expired.
The law passed with bipartisan support 14 years ago, but since then has become almost universally regarded as an unworkable and overly punitive approach to improving the nation’s schools.
Even though everyone can find something to hate in the current law, there’s plenty to disagree upon in a rewrite, and there’s no guarantee that Congress will succeed in crafting language that can pass both chambers and get a signature from President Obama.
Here are three key issues you can expect to see discussed in the coming days:
Accountability: Who should decide how to define and fix “failing” schools?
Republicans generally want to leave these questions up to states, and, in an alliance of odd bedfellows, so does the nation’s largest teachers union. But Democrats and civil rights groups worry that will open the door to the bad old days before No Child Left Behind, when it was much easier for states to sweep achievement gaps under the rug. They want to see the federal government compel states to act when a school fails to meet testing targets for subgroups of students — such as black students, Latino students and poor children — two years in a row.
Obama has threatened to veto the House bill in part because its accountability provisions aren’t strong enough to protect the most disadvantaged children, administration officials said. The administration is now pushing the Senate to beef up the accountability provisions in its bipartisan bill so that states are required not just to report persistent achievement gaps, but to do something about them.
“Every family and every community deserves more than transparency. They deserve action,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a call with reporters Monday.
Equity: How much should the federal government do to ensure that all children are getting the resources they need?
Democrats have said they want to see a new law hold states accountable for providing the most disadvantaged students with equitable resources, including access to effective teachers and higher-level coursework such as Advanced Placement classes. The GOP position, again, is to leave it to states to decide how to allocate resources fairly.
Title I portability: Should federal Title I dollars follow poor children wherever they enroll, or should they be used in schools with the greatest concentration of poverty?
Many Republicans back “Title I portability,” a wonky term for allowing federal dollars to flow to poor children wherever they are individually enrolled.
That means that an affluent school with a few poor children, which doesn’t currently receive any Title I dollars, would receive a small sum. It also means that if a poor child leaves a high-poverty school and enrolls in a more affluent one, the federal money would follow the student to the new school.
Democrats, including President Obama, argue that Title I portability would rob the nation’s neediest schools of federal dollars. Democrats also oppose portability as a first step toward federal vouchers that would allow students to use federal funding for private school enrollment.
Amendments and debate
There also are likely to be controversial amendments related to bullying and to opting out of standardized tests.
Some lawmakers undoubtedly will raise the spectre of the Common Core State Standards, but there’s unlikely to be much policy debate there. Both chambers’ bills include language that would prohibit the education secretary from influencing states’ academic standards or policies. The language grows out of lawmakers’ frustration with the power wielded by Duncan, who used the promise of billions of dollars in Race to the Top grants and No Child Left Behind waivers to encourage states to adopt policies the Obama administration favors.
But most seats in Congress have turned over since No Child Left Behind was passed — fewer than 30 of 100 Senators, for example, voted on that bill 14 years ago. That means that this will be the first time that most members have a chance to take a stand on major K-12 education legislation, and given the passions that Common Core tends to provoke, they might have something to say about it.
The Senate is expected to dive in Tuesday for a floor debate that’s likely to last at least a week. The bipartisan Senate bill, called the Every Child Achieves Act, sailed out of committee on a nearly unheard-of unanimous vote, but that doesn’t mean everyone loved it, or even could live with it as it is. Senators on both the right and left said they voted yes in committee to honor the bipartisan drafting process that was led by the committee’s chair and ranking member, Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.)
the House is expected to take up its bill, known as the Student Success Act, on Wednesday. Republican leaders had to pull it from the floor in February after it became clear that it didn’t have the votes to pass. The Student Success Act faced opposition not only from Democrats who said it would exacerbate inequities among the nation’s schools (including President Obama, who said he would veto it), but there also were defections on the right, from conservative Republicans who said the bill didn’t go far enough to rein the federal government’s influence over K-12 education. Heritage Action, a prominent conservative group, is urging lawmakers to vote against both bills.